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Imagine being a bug; catching a meal might not be as simple when you’re that small. But just because creepy crawlies aren’t the largest creatures on the planet, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t just as adept when it comes to feeding themselves. In fact, insects have some of the weirdest and most wonderful ways to hunt and catch their prey!
Ways in Which Insects Capture their Prey
Life as an insect can get pretty exciting, and even the simple act of catching your next meal involves some impressive innovation.
Perhaps one of the most well-known types of insect hunting methods is the web. This is a technique used by spiders that allows them to catch prey passively. Once the spider has constructed the web, all she needs to do is sit and wait for her prey to get caught in it. Then, she goes in for the kill.
The type of webs that most people are familiar with are orb webs in which the spider will sit in the middle. They look like a net, laid out to capture prey, and can come in other shapes. In fact, scientists think that some spiders weave their webs in such a way that they’re more obvious to birds so they don’t fly into them.
There are also funnel-shaped webs made by the infamous funnel web spider of Australia. These tube-shaped webs provide these highly venomous spiders with somewhere to hide while they wait for their prey to enter.
But perhaps one of the most interesting types of web is the net. Some spiders, like the ogre faced spider, create a web that they hold onto and wait for prey to wander beneath them. When an unsuspecting meal does that, the spider will drop the net onto it, capturing it ready for dinner time!
There are several types of insects that ambush their prey but perhaps one of the most well-known is the praying mantis. These creatures sometimes called sit-and-wait predators will find a concealed location to keep them out of sight of prey. Sometimes, they will even try to blend in with their surroundings. For example, the praying mantis will sway so that it looks like leaves in a breeze!
From her vantage point, the insect has a brilliant vantage point to spot approaching prey. When it gets close enough, the insect will strike and make its capture.
Mimicry & Camouflage
Imagine looking so much like an inanimate part of nature that prey would walk right up to you! That’s how a lot of insects catch their meals by simply blending in to look like they’re something else; it’s called mimicry. One of the most famous examples of this is the stick insect.
As you can tell by their name, these insects look like sticks. Not only does this help to disguise them from predators but it could help them catch dinner if it weren’t for the fact that they are herbivores.
But there are plenty of omnivorous and carnivorous insects that use mimicry as a way of catching their prey. These are known as aggressive mimics as they’re mimicking in order to catch a meal rather than to avoid becoming one.
A fine example of this in the insect world is the orchid mantis. These bugs have the appearance of, you guessed it, an orchid which means that its pollinator prey will fly right onto it. Crab spiders act in a similar way, resting on flowers of the same color to camouflage themselves and trick their prey into coming very close.
There’s one type of insect that a lot of people are fearful of; the spider. For many arachnaphobics, this fear comes from the fact that a lot of spiders are venomous. When they bite, they use their fangs to inject venom designed to immobilize and eventually kill their victims. However, while humans aren’t food, spider bites can still do some serious damage and may even be fatal.
But spiders aren’t the only creepy crawlies that use venom to catch their prey. Scorpions also use this technique. But I bet you never would have guessed that the most potent insect venom on the planet actually belongs to a species of ant!
Some of the lengths that insects will go to to get a meal are astonishing. Take the ichneumonid wasp, for example, which lays its eggs inside other insects. When the larvae hatch, the poor victim doesn’t stand a chance because they’ll consume it from the inside out!
There are also other types of parasitoids called ectoparasitoids. Instead of living inside their host, they will attach to the outside and feed on the host’s bodily fluids by piercing the skin.
For the most part, we understand that pheromones are used to attract a mate. It’s something that’s present in all creatures great and small; including humans. However, that’s not the only reason that animals might use pheromones.
In fact, there are some insect species that emit pheromones designed to attract prey and it works pretty well. For example, the bolas spider is able to release a pheromone that is the same as the female moth that it’s trying to hunt. Males looking to mate will be lured into a false sense of security before meeting a sorry end to the spider.
The katydid, a type of large cricket, uses an imitation cicada mating call to lure males straight to its dinner plate.
Some insects will build traps to catch their prey and it’s amazing just how innovative those traps can be. Take the antlion, for example, which constructs a spiral-shaped trap below the sand to make the ground unstable. Once a prey species walks over the top, they fall in with no hope of escape.
There are lots of other ant and beetle species that behave in this way including a Brazilian ant species, called pheidole oxyops, which creates a trap surrounded by feathers in an attempt to bait passing prey.
One species of tree ant makes a trap so elaborate that thousands of individuals have to be involved in the construction. By making a gallery on a host plant, they’re able to immobilize any prey that walks along the surface. The ants lie in wait inside the stem of the plant, poking their heads through small holes to access the unsuspecting victim.
Insects that Use Unique Ways to Capture their Prey
The insect world is full of creative critters that have come up with unusual ways of catching their prey. Let’s get to know some of them a little better.
1. Assassin Bug
The term assassin bug refers to a family of insects that are known for their hunting tactics. While they’re pretty much harmless to humans, their bite can be super painful, and if you’re a prey animal, you’d better watch out!
The assassin bug is one of the most formidable predatory bugs and what’s interesting is that each species has a very particular penchant for prey. For example, there are some species, such as the thread-legged assassin bug that only prey on harmful spiders. Not only is this a risk but these bugs overcome all obstacles by hunting the spiders on their own webs! They do this by tapping the spiders and plucking their webs which seems to confuse them, giving the bug time to strike.
There are other types of assassin bugs that will trick their prey using disguises such as covering themselves up with dirt and striking as the prey passes. Other ant-eating assassin bugs produce a sweet liquid to lure their prey right to them. It’s important for them to have these techniques since they’re not very fast movers.
As adults, antlions aren’t bothered about hunting as they’ll mainly feed on things like pollen. However, during the larval stage, a nice protein-filled meal is a must so the larvae will prey on small insects, mainly ants.
They do this by digging a hole in the sandy substrate on which they live that has steep walls and a spiral design. This makes the structure very weak so that, when an ant walks over it, it’ll fall right in. The antlion larva will be waiting at the bottom to take a bite.
In the unlikely event that the victim attempts to climb out (those walls are very steep), the antlion larva will shoot sand jets to make its prey fall back down; there’s really no escape!
3. Bird-Dropping Spider
As I discussed earlier, many insects will use mimicry to trick prey into thinking they’re harmless. But just imagining pretending to be a pile of poop! Sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what the bird-dropping spider does.
You may be able to tell from its name which type of animal excrement these spiders look like. But they not only resemble bird droppings, they also smell like them! It might be strange but this scent and appearance are hugely attractive to male moths as the pheromones released by the spider are the same as those released by the female moths during mating season.
Once prey approaches the spider, she will use a thread-like web covered in a sticky substance which she launches towards her victim in a quickfire ambush attack.
4. Orchid Mantis
The orchid mantis is a species that practices aggressive mimicry. This means that the insect will mimic an object in order to attract prey. In the case of the orchid mantis, that object is the orchid flower. However, recent research suggests that it’s less about the appearance of the mantis in terms of shape and more to do with its color that attracts insects.
You see, these creatures are on the hunt for pollinators, and their colors are attractive as they make them look like nectar-filled flowers. This deceptive tactic is perfect for attracting prey, but it’s also thought that it helps the mantis camouflage itself from predators.
5. Robber Fly
Robber flies are equipped with super speedy movement and vision that’s second to none. These traits mean that this predatory fly is able to catch its prey in mid-air. But that’s not the most fascinating thing. Scientists have been looking at how the robber fly approaches its prey and found that, when unobstructed, the fly keeps a clear line of sight until it reaches its target.
However, when that line of sight was broken by obstacles, the flies would swerve around them in order to reach their prey.
Once a robber fly catches its prey, the game isn’t over. To make sure their meal doesn’t get away, the robber fly uses sharp teeth to inject a potent venom that dissolves the prey’s insides. The fly can then suck these out for a tasty liquid lunch!
6. Ichneumonid Wasp
The ichneumonid wasp is a type of parasitoid that uses other insects as a host for its larvae. The wasp lays its eggs on the insect or even inside it, where they develop. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will then feed on the host, eventually killing it.
Usually, the host will be a caterpillar, grub, or some other kind of pupa and the female is able to inject her eggs directly into the creature using a body part called the ovipositor.
7. Praying Mantis
The praying mantis, a species of mantid, is perfectly equipped for hunting. In fact, it’s because of their hook-like jaws and long forearms that most people instantly think of them when asked to name a predatory insect.
Beautiful creatures, praying mantises are ambush hunters that camouflage themselves among the foliage, waiting for prey to pass by. When it does, they will strike with their long arms in a movement that is so fast that if you blink, you’ll miss it!
Praying mantises don’t just feed on other insects; they’re also known to be one of the main predators of the hummingbird. An avian species that is also predated by certain spiders owing to its tiny size.
8. Hawaiian Eupithecia Caterpillar
When I first saw the Hawaian eupithecia caterpillar I was reminded of the old baddies in the desert levels from the Super Mario game. Standing upright on a branch and holding on with a specially designed foot, these caterpillars look like twigs moving independently of the rest of the plant.
They use this mimicry to attract other insects who believe it to be a harmless part of the plant. However, when they get close enough, the caterpillar will move at lightning speed, striking its prey in one swift movement.
Thanks to their sharp claws and bristles on their bodies, Hawaiian eupithecia caterpillars can piece even the hard exoskeletons of spiders and wasps which means that nothing is off the menu.
9. Crab Spider
The crab spider has an ingenious way of catching prey, and that’s by blending in with the flowers on which it sits. Unsuspecting victims will boldly approach thinking there’s no danger, and that’s when the crab spider will seize its opportunity.
However, it isn’t only colors that help the spider to draw in prey. These fascinating creatures are also able to reflect UV light which attracts pollinators who use this type of light to detect flowers; how cunning!
All the spider needs to do is sit and wait for its prey to come right up to it, almost willingly as a meal!
10. New Zealand Glowworm
The arachnocampa, commonly known as the New Zealand glowworm, doesn’t actually hunt in its adult form as its only goal is to reproduce. However, much like the antlion I discussed earlier, the larvae have an intense need for food. As such, they’ve developed a pretty interesting hunting strategy.
These glowworms have the ability to weave a web and do this from the ceilings of the caves they inhabit. These long, thread-like structures are then covered in mucus, sometimes containing toxins, and the worms will emit a pretty bioluminescent glow to lure in prey.
Any prey that lands on the webs will become quickly caught, and it’s then that the glow worm turns off its light and starts chowing down.
11. Velvet Worms
Velvet worms are one of the most unusual insects on the planet and they’re surprisingly cute. That said, they’re not actually a type of insect at all nor are they worms. They’re most closely related to the water bear although velvet worms can get as large as 8 inches (20 cm).
These animals live in very humid environments and only hunt at night as the sun would surely dry out their bodies. However, since their vision and hearing are pretty terrible, the velvet worm has to rely on other hunting techniques.
They shoot a stream of slime at very high speeds toward their prey. Once it covers the prey and dries, the poor victim is stuck in place and ready to become a meal. What’s most interesting though is that the velvet worm has no control over the direction of the spray, so releases a lot at once to get the most coverage.
12. Epomis Beetle
Can you imagine a creature that hunts prey many times bigger than itself? Well, meet the epomis beetle that’s caused quite the stir in the animal kingdom because, despite its size, it’ll feed on frogs!
Of course, it can’t do this by force alone, so it uses a pretty sneaky tactic. The larvae of the epomis beetle lures the frog into attacking it, when it does, the beetle larvae bites into the tendons of the frog’s legs, rendering them useless.
Now, the larva can chew on the frog for as long as it wants to, and if the frog tries to eat it in self-defense, it’ll have a hard time digesting it so usually has to spit it straight back out. How unfortunate!
13. Turtle Ants
Turtle ants are a species of soldier ant that live in trees. Looking at them, you might think that they have a pretty strange appearance with those flat heads. But it’s that very trait that ensures these ants can get a meal.
Working as a colony, the ants will trap their prey inside the nest using their heads in a way that’s not all that dissimilar to a cork in a bottle. Once the prey is successfully trapped inside, the whole colony will reap the rewards and get a tasty meal.
14. Bolas Spiders
Pheromones are used by every animal and it’s even been reported that some plants use pheromones for sexual reproduction purposes. However, there’s one species of spider that is able to mimic the chemicals that its prey emits during mating in order to lure it into becoming dinner.
The bolas spider feeds primarily on moths, most notably male moths. But to capture them, they cannot weave an orb web as this isn’t effective when catching these insects. Instead, the spider will release a pheromone that tricks the male into thinking there is a female close by.
Once he ventures close enough, the spider releases a sticky thread-like web called a bolas that attaches to the moth, allowing the spider to literally reel in its meal.
15. Emerald Cockroach Wasp
The emerald cockroach wasp is perhaps one of the most beautiful-looking insects on this list. But looks can be deceiving as this animal is responsible for the zombification of its prey. It does this by injecting a venom that affects the neurological system of the victim. Once the toxin takes over, the decision-making abilities are all but lost, and the prey is under the command of the wasp.
The emerald cockroach wasp is able to lead its prey back to its burrow because the victim cannot put up a fight but still has the ability to move. That’s handy considering the prey is much larger than the predator in this case. Once back at the burrow, the wasp will lay its eggs inside the cockroach and the larvae have a readymade food supply.
16. Trapdoor Spiders
The trapdoor spider is a type of burrowing spider that spends the majority of its time in its burrow. This burrow is lined with a silken web, and the spider uses its specially adapted teeth to craft a trapdoor-style entrance.
On the spider’s legs are hundreds of very sensitive hairs that allow it to detect when prey is outside of the door. When it senses even subtle vibrations, the spider will spring out from the door to catch its prey at amazing speeds.