What Are the Assassin Bug Damages? (2018 Guide)
The term ‘assassin bug’ covers a wide range of different species of insect, with over 7000 species described so far. Assassin bugs live all over the world, including North and South America, Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe. Because of this widespread range and the sheer variety of different species of this strange family of bugs, it’s inevitable that they will come into contact with people on a regular basis. And they do. So you might find yourself wondering, will the assassin bug damage my plants? And what is the effect on agriculture of these exotic pests? Are they a threat to us?
Assassin bugs get their name from the fact that they prey on other insects. They are voracious hunters, and the dazzling array of different species that exist is proof of how specialized these tiny hunters have become. Each different type of assassin bug has its preferred prey and its own method of hunting, and some of these are astounding in their skillfulness. Others are downright bizarre. The assassin bugs are a group of insects that reward close study by being so fascinating.
That’s all well and good, you may say. But if the assassin bugs damage our food plants, shouldn’t we be concerned about these insects? But the truth is, assassin bugs don’t harm plants. These bugs are carnivores, and the overwhelming majority of them feed on other insects. There are exceptions to this rule, but even then, the assassin bugs that don’t hunt other insects don’t feed on plants either. We’ll come back to that subject elsewhere.
But for now, it is important to understand that most species of assassin bugs have no interest whatsoever in plants except as places to hide or to hunt or to lay their eggs. What they are really after is the other insects found in gardens and farms, the ones that can and do feed on and damage or even destroy plants. This is the food source of the assassin bugs. In the world of insects, the assassin bugs are some of the top predators.
For this reason, assassin bugs are generally considered as beneficial by most gardeners and farmers. They do not cause damage to plants and they actively hunt the insects that do. This helps to keep insect numbers in check, in much the same way that top predators like lions help to keep the savanna healthy by limiting the numbers of grazing animals feeding on it. In nature, everything has its balance, its equilibrium, its reason to exist. For the assassin bugs, that reason is to feed on other insects and hunt them through gardens and farms. It’s not as though they do it for our benefit, of course. They do it to survive. But it helps food growers anyway, so much so that in some places, farmers have deliberately raised and released assassin beetles into the wild to help keep down populations of pest insects without having to resort to the use of pesticides. So let’s dig a little deeper as we examine the effect of assassin bugs on gardens and farms.
Assassin Bug Damage To Gardens
Let’s imagine you’re working in your garden on a hot summer day. As you move through the carefully planted rows of flowers and vegetables, you notice something troubling. The leaves of your plants, the plants you have been carefully tending and watering for weeks, have been stripped by something. The leaves have been skeletonized, in fact, in some cases consumed all the way back to the veins. This is going to have a devastating effect on your plants, which will no longer be able to catch energy from the sun thanks to whatever has attacked them. Bugs. It must be bugs. The tiny marks of masticating mandibles on the remaining leaves give the game away. Looking around the plants, you catch sight of a strange looking bug you have never seen before. Is this what has been eating your plants?
It’s easy, in a situation like the one described above, to make that mistake. Assassin bugs are mostly solitary, unlike some other insects, and so even in an area that has them, you could go a long time without seeing one. Also, some species of assassin bugs are very strange looking. When you see an inch and a half long bug with a crest on its back like a miniature dinosaur, stalking through your plants, your natural reaction may well be to assume that it’s up to no good.
But before you go swatting at every bug you see, step back. If it’s an assassin bug, this is not the culprit. And in fact, these garden predator could be your best friend.
Mistakes like this often happen because people see the assassin bugs in conjunction with damage to their plants and draw a line between the two. But the truth is a little more complicated than that. In reality, it is a high population of other bugs that will attract the assassin bugs to your garden. The presence of assassin bugs along with damaged plants only shows that the assassin bugs are another symptom of the same problem. You have an insect problem, and the assassin bug is there to help with it.
Sometimes, it can require careful identification to tell an assassin bug from some other type of bug. Many species of assassin bugs use camouflage to allow them to stay hidden from their prey. This can result is assassin bugs looking quite similar to the animals that they hunt. In fact, some species of assassin bugs even cover themselves with the dead and desiccated bodies of their prey animals in an effort to look – and smell – more like them. So be careful when you take a look at the insects in your garden. What looks like a herbivorous bug may actually be a disguised assassin. And many assassin bugs are perfectly capable of delivering a painful bite to humans if they feel threatened.
In general, assassin bugs are six-legged with a narrow cone-shaped head, separated from the body by a thin neck-like structure. Most species have wings and are capable of flight. They have a long, sharp beak that they keep tucked under their bodies when not in use. This beak is their main offensive weapon. They use it to stab the insects that they catch and inject them with powerful enzymes that paralyze and liquefy their prey. It’s not a pleasant thought, but that’s nature in action. If it works, it works. And for the assassin bug, this age-old method of attack most definitely works.
If you happen to find what you believe to be an assassin bug in your garden, the best course of action is probably to do nothing. Chances are, it is only there because there are large numbers of whatever insect it preys on in the vicinity. If you really feel the need to get rid of the assassin bugs in your garden, the best thing to do is get rid of the other insects that are attracting it. Without a viable food source, these invertebrate hunters will simply move on to richer hunting grounds. And if you do run into an assassin bug in your garden, give it plenty of space. These bugs don’t want to hurt you, but they will bite if they feel they need to, and that sharp beak works just as well on human skin as it does on the tough exoskeletons of other insects. The bite from an assassin bug can be extremely painful, and it’s better not to tangle with them if you can avoid it. If you have to handle one of these creatures, a pair of thick gardening gloves can help you avoid being pierced by that nasty beak. But generally, the best course of action is to leave the assassin bugs alone wherever possible. Remember, assassin bugs don’t damage your garden. If anything, they are protecting your plants from other insects that can and do harm them.
Agricultural Damage Caused By Assassin Bugs
Modern farms are strange places. While it’s tempting to think of them as some kind of pastoral paradise, a quaint echo of a slower, more natural world than the hustle and bustle of cities, nothing could be further from the truth. The modern farm is no more natural than the city, and enormous amounts of time and effort and money are put into shaping the land in a way best suited for human use, rather than the way nature intended for things to be. Farms are businesses like any other, and so modern farmers need to be acutely aware of any potential threats to their business, Bad weather can ruin a farming operation if it goes on too long. So can an infestation of insects. History is full of stories of people’s livelihoods being ruined once a plague of voracious insects appeared among their crops. The modern farmer needs to be prepared for this possibility, and take whatever measures against it he can.
Thanks to this vulnerability to the whims of nature, farmers are intimately acquainted with bugs, including the assassin bugs. Farmers know that these bugs do not eat plants, and instead eat the insects that do eat plants. As a result, assassin bugs are often welcomed onto a farmer’s land. In fact, many farmers actively encourage assassin bugs to hunt among their crops, and will sometimes release captive-bred populations of assassin bugs to help keep down the numbers of other insects.
Of course, the relationship between assassin bugs and agriculture isn’t always so straightforward.
It’s true that assassin bugs don’t damage plants, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t do any agricultural damage at all. After all, farmers rely on bees to pollinate their plants. And assassin bugs will prey on bees, along with many other insects. In fact, there is even a species of assassin bug called the bee killer which specializes in bee hunting. This crafty predator waits among the flowers for a bee to come by on its pollinating mission. Then it rushes out from undercover and grabs the bee with its strong, sticky forearms. The bee killer’s sharp beak makes short work of the unlucky bee, and the bug makes a meal of its prey.
For this reason, it is recommended to those farmers that deliberately release assassin bugs to perform pest control services in their fields that they refrain from doing so during pollination season.
This points to a larger issue, too. Assassin bugs are not always the most discriminating killers. While they will kill and eat the insects that farmers fear will damage their crops, they will also hunt and kill other, more beneficial insects. It’s not just pollinators like bees, either. Some species of assassin bugs will eat spiders, ladybugs, aphids, harvestmen and other bugs which are considered beneficial to have in food crops. As with everything in nature, it’s important that a balance is maintained. The balance between predator and prey is delicate and very vulnerable to outside interference, so it’s important for farmers to stay on top of the complex ecosystem of their fields of crops.
Another side of the assassin bug that farmers have to be on their guard for is parasitism. There is a species of assassin bug called the kissing bug that has adapted itself from feeding on insects to feeding on blood. It consumes the blood of vertebrate animals, including humans, but also their livestock. By using its sharp beak like a hypodermic needle to draw blood from its unsuspecting victims, the kissing bug, also sometimes called the vampire bug for obvious reasons, can cause infections among livestock. It is also the main vector of Chagas disease, a major infectious disease that affects humans.
Farmers need to be aware of these dangers, both to themselves and their livestock. Chicken coops and barns make ideal habitats for kissing bugs to hide out in during the day, only to emerge at night when it’s time to feed. Dogs are also at great risk for Chagas disease, as kennels make ideal habitats for kissing bugs. Kissing bugs can fly and are drawn to the carbon dioxide that mammals exhale, so they can travel over considerable distances in search of a blood meal. And Chagas disease doesn’t only affect humans. In can cause heart problems in dogs and livestock too, forcing farmers to be vigilant in protecting their animals from this insect threat.
With the exception of the kissing bug, though, assassin bugs are not something that should keep farmers awake at night. No known species of assassin bug damages plants, and so farmers, far from trying to get rid of assassin bugs among their crops, often actively encourage them. With the obvious exception of the disease-carrying kissing bugs, the agricultural damage caused by assassin bugs is largely limited to some small-scale predation on pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Assassin Bugs: Not As Bad As They Sound?
Because there are so many different species of assassin bugs and such a great variety in their behavior, it’s hard to make blanket statements about them as a group. Kissing bugs, in particular, are not only dangerous to humans, due to their role as vectors of disease, but they are one of the only species of assassin bugs that will actually seek humans out and try to come into contact with them. These bugs are obviously a big problem for anyone who lives in a region where they are prevalent, which includes much of the United States.
But beyond this particular species, assassin bugs in general can be very helpful to humans. As dedicated hunters and carnivores, they cause no damage to gardens or farms, and in fact work to limit the damage done to plants by other insect species. Assassin bugs may look ugly, and their methods of hunting and feeding may be repellent to us. But these fascinating bugs most definitely have their place in the natural order, and it is important that we learn to live alongside them. These insects are highly beneficial to have in the garden or on the farm, and the fact that they are capable of delivering a nasty bite should only make us respect them more, not less.
So if you discover some damage to the plants in your garden and see a strange-looking bug in the middle of the mess, take a moment before you reach for the bug spray. The bug you were about to kill may be an assassin bug of one species or another. And this crafty, ferocious, misunderstood predatory bug could end up being your new best friend.