Note: This is the debut installment of a semi-regular feature I am dubbing “True Bug Tuesday.” It will likely include reposts of previous entries that cover members of the order Hemiptera.
Remember when your parents told you there were no monsters under your bed? Perhaps they were wrong. Have you ever wondered if you were hallucinating when you swore you saw a self-propelled dust bunny crawling across the floor? You might have been perfectly sane. There is a predatory insect that qualifies as both a miniature monster and an animated dust ball, and it is most often encountered indoors rather than outside.
The Masked Hunter, Reduvius personatus, is a member of the assassin bug family Reduviidae. Fortunately, the only thing it “assassinates” is other insects and related invertebrates. The piercing-sucking mouthparts are sleeved inside a short, stout, segmented beak bent under the insect’s “chin” when not in use.
The most remarkable trait of this species is the appearance of the immature stages, called “nymphs.” True bugs in general go through “gradual” metamorphosis, such that the juvenile stages look much like the adults, except that they are smaller, not sexually mature, and lack wings (if the species in question has wings at maturity). This is true of the Masked Hunter, except that the nymphs actively cover themselves in lint, sawdust, and other debris.
Their bodies are covered in short and long trichomes (hairs) connected to glands that produce a sticky substance. Fine particles adhere to the short trichomes close to the body of the insect, while longer trichomes anchor coarser particles in a second layer of camouflage. A “tarsal fan” of dense, long hairs on the foot of each hind leg helps the nymph apply the trash to the trichomes (Weirauch, 2006).
Each time the baby assassin molts (sheds its exoskeleton to grow in the brief interval before the new exoskeleton hardens), it must repeat the self-decorating process. The disguise helps protect it from potential predators, but might also make it appear harmless to its own prey. The Masked Hunter is probably a generalist predator, but it is often found in association with people and/or colonial birds and bats. It is well known for preying on bed bugs and swallow bugs (true bugs in the family Cimicidae). Other prey records include silverfish, booklice, and at least one harvestman (Arachnida: Opiliones).
Masked Hunters go through five instars. An instar is the period between molts. The nymphs are the ones that overwinter, usually in the fifth instar, but in Canada the life cycle may take two years, the nymphs overwintering in the third and fifth instar (Scudder, 1992). During the winter they are in diapauses, ceasing activity until the following spring. The sixth molt produces the adult insect, a dark, winged animal measuring from 15-22 millimeters in length.
Today, the Masked Hunter is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is assumed that it is European in origin and has been transported to other continents through human travel and commerce. While it can be a common species, it is not prolific, and populations are usually small. Few specimens will occupy any given home or other building.
Assassin bugs are able to produce sound by rubbing one body part against another, a phenomenon known as “stridulation.” In this case, the insect rocks its head up and down, rubbing the tip of its beak across a series of transverse ridges on its "chest." The result is a very audible squeaking sound that may startle any other creature that grabs the bug.
The Masked Hunter is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is assumed to be European in origin and has been transported to other continents through human travel and commerce. Most adult specimens of Reduvius personatus are seen in June and July. Look for them at lights at night where they are occasionally attracted by the buffet of potential prey insects. By day, they hide under bark on logs and in other sheltered situations. Be careful, though, Masked Hunters can deliver a painful bite in self-defense.
Sources: Hoffman, Richard L. 2006. “Assassin Bugs of Virginia,” The Insects of Virginia 15: 1-74.Scudder, G.G.E. 1992. “The distribution and life cycle of Reduvius personatus (L.) (Hemiptera: Reduviidae) in Canada,” J. Entomol. Soc. B.C. 89: 38-42.Weirauch, Chrstiane. 2006. “Anatomy of Disguise: Camouflaging Structures in Nymphs of Some Reduviidae (Heteroptera),” Am. Mus. Novit. 3542: 1-18.