Assassin bug Care
White spot Assassin bugs, image by Mark Pellegrini
Assassin bugs are amongst my favourite insects to keep, especially when kept in a colony. They are very interesting to watch being extremely aggressive feeders (they will fearlessly take on prey which is larger than themselves; I like to think of them as the lions of the insect world). Whilst assassin bugs is a colloquial term which is used to describe a large cosmopolitan group (a group which is found throughout the world in the appropriate habitats) consisting of a number of genera, this care sheet concerns itself with Platymeris spp. as these are the most commonly kept of the assassin bugs, and their care is exactly the same.
Most commonly kept in captivity are the red spotted assassin bugs (Platymeris rhadamanthus), the white spotted assassin bugs (Platymeris bigutattus) and the orange spotted assassin bugs (Platymeris sp.). With the exception of the orange spotted assassin bug, which is somewhat rarer in captivity and grows upwards of 6cm, most commonly kept assassin bugs reach about 4cm long. They are fairly chunky and as previously mentioned they are fearless feeders, taking on food which is much larger than themselves with incredible vigour. Fascinating to watch.
Assassin bugs are generally characterized by their elongated head an narrowed neck, along with their highly developed rostrum which is used for piercing prey, injecting venom and then consuming the bodily fluids. This can also be used to deliver a very painful bite if you are not careful. It gets worse though, not only can they bite with it but they can actually use it to spray venom with startling accuracy (they have an affinity for aiming for eyes, and they’re rather successful with it) which can cause temporary blindness, swelling and other problems. I have personally never been sprayed - they rarely do it, the closest I have come is walking past a colony of red spots and having them one spray at the plastic of the tank in my direction. I do however have a friend who was sprayed directly in one eye, he experienced blurred vision in the eye for a few hours, had to take a day off work and experienced ‘discomfort’ in the area for about a week. Be careful when working with assassin bugs. Whilst I never went this far, some owners opt to use safety glasses when working with assassin bugs.
Assassin bug housing
Assassin bugs can be housed communally, however you should try to avoid housing specimens which vary alot in size together as they can be mildly cannibalistic. Platymeris spp. are found in Africa and as such they prefer warm, dryer set ups. Whilst they can be housed at room temperature they thrive when provided with a heat source at about 28-30c, they will be much more active and voracious feeders at this temperature. A simple heat mat preferably on a thermostat is ideal for this as it allows you to create a temperature gradient.
In terms of choice of housing, you have plenty of options. You can house them in a plastic faunarium which offers plenty of ventilation (ideal) or any plastic container you buy from a discount/DIY store which is escape proof (you don’t really want something which bites and sprays venom aiming for the eyes loose in your room do you?). Size wise, I wouldn’t keep an individual in anything smaller than 6inch cubed, however this species is communal and I personally believe in order to get the most out of them they should be kept communally. When you keep a species communally you get to see a range of behaviours which you simply don’t get to see with an individual specimen. Such behaviours include social interactions like territorial squabbles, mating, fighting over food, social interactions, etc. In my humble opinion it is the sociability of assassin bugs that make them so interesting to keep (that and their attitude toward food).
Anyway, I divulge, if you get your hands on an enclosure which is approximately 15x12x12in and filled it with cork bark and driftwood creatively, you could keep a good sized colony in there (7-10 individuals). Alternatively a 10x8x8in colony can house about 4-5 individuals. There is no real limit to colony size, so long as you provide adequate space and food you are in theory limitless. Sometimes I wonder how it would be to have a 4x2x2ft vivarium full of large pieces of driftwood and the like, with about 100 assassin bugs in. I guess maintenance would be something of a handful, as would collecting the massive amount of eggs you would inevitably get...
Rather alot of white spot assassin bugs, image by Ltshears
Keep your assassin bugs on a substrate of a sand and coconut or peat mix, the ratios largely depend on how you would like the set up to look. Personally I go for about a 30/70 split between sand and coconut fibre simply because I like the appearance. Decor should consist of cork bark, drift wood and the like; items with plenty of cracks and crevices upon which the assassin bugs can climb and hide.
Whilst assassin bugs get the vast majority of their moisture from their food the addition of a water bowl is not a bad idea, something shallow and easy to access (a jam jar lid with a stone in it for instance – the stone allowing for individuals to exit easily should they fall in) is ideal. Make sure you change the water 2-3 times a week.
Feeding Assassin Bugs
This is the fun bit. Assassin bugs, as I have harped on about again and again, are fantastic feeders. They will take on anything they can overpower, this includes food up to 1.5x their own size. I have actually witnessed youngsters ignoring food which is smaller than themselves, its almost as if they enjoy the challenge.
Feed them on a varied diet of crickets, locusts, cockroaches, mealworms, moths and other insects. Generally speaking, one appropriately sized food item per week per specimen will suffice, if you opt to feed larger food then you may not need to feed quite as often, You will notice after your assassin bug has fed its abdomen swells up as its full of food. Over the coming days this food will be digested and ‘processed’ and you can see the abdomen shrink again, at which point they will probably be ready for more food. After a few weeks of keeping your assassin bugs you will get used to how they behave and be able to tell simply from looking at the abdomen if they require a feed. You’ll probably find that babies need to feed more often than adults. Also when keeping colonies you should try to make sure food is fairly readily available to reduce the risk of cannibalism.
Breeding Assassin Bugs
Assassin bugs are parthenogenic, meaning the females are able to produce fertile eggs without a male. They are not exclusively parthenogenic however and males are common in captivity and they readily breed. That said, males are not a necessity in a colony.
Upon reaching maturity (within 6-9months) the females will continue to live for another 2 years or so during which they will produce a few eggs a week; if there are no males present they will produce only male young, however male and female matings result in eggs obviously produce both males and females. The eggs are fairly distinct, they are small dark structures which are about 1.5mm in diameter and they have a slight shine to them, they are quite different from faeces and substrate and are quite easy to spot once you know what you are looking for. They are easily identified by their white cap on one end, this cap eventually creates an exit for the baby assassin bug from which it hatches.
To incubate eggs it is best to remove them from the adult enclosure and keep on a substrate of slightly damp coconut fibre, peat moss or even vermiculite. Over the course of 3-5 weeks (temperature dependant) the eggs will hatch producing young which are very similar in appearance to the adults (with the exception of the wings which assassin bugs only again upon maturity of course) only with a red abdomen and more prominent colouring on the legs.
Within a couple of days the young will be read to feed and will feed ravenously on live food such as drosophila, crickets, tiny locusts, etc. They will readily take food their own size and are a fantastic little insect to watch feed. Over the course of 6-9 months they shed their skin a series of times eventually turning in to adults and continuing the cycle. It is very easy to maintain a colony of assassin bugs once you have acquired a few individuals. You will probably find you have extra eggs which you can sell as eggs or allow to hatch and sell yourself. Assassin bugs sell fairly readily and are available on most reptile forums and even ebay.
As you will have gathered, I am rather keen on assassin bugs. They are an extremely enjoyable and very easy species to keep and they display a great series of behaviours. They are ferocious feeders who readily tackle food which is larger themselves. They are great breeders and its quite easy to maintain a colony of them whilst having some eggs to spare.
Just watch out for them spraying venom at your eyes...
Red spot Assassin bugs (Platymeris laevicollis, slightly rarer, the red is darker than in the more common Platymeris rhadamanthus which display a vibrant red), image by Greg Hume
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