Missouri's Vampire Hunters

By Matt Seek | artwork by David Besenger | October 1, 2013
From Xplor: October/November 2013

This Halloween, you might run into a few vampires while you’re out trick-or-treating. But don’t worry. These make-believe monsters don’t want to suck your blood. They just want candy. Nature, however, isn’t so nice.

Animals such as leeches, ticks, and mosquitoes survive by sucking blood. Other animals, such as spiders and robber flies, don’t stop with blood — they suck the ver y life from their prey. Luckily, nature is full of predators that keep these vampire-like animals in check.

Robber Versus Robber

Robber flies aren’t afraid to waylay prey twice their size, including spiders, dragonflies, and bumblebees. They’ve even been seen pouncing on hummingbirds. So can any animal take down these fiendish flies? In fact, many giant robber flies hunt down other robber flies. Female robbers are even known to eat their mates when the mood strikes.

A Fly That Steals Lives

There’s a bug-eyed burglar buzzing around your backyard. Robber flies have huge eyes, powerful wings, and clawed, lethal legs. More than 100 kinds of robber flies live in Missouri. Many aren’t much larger than your pinkie fingernail. Some, such as the red-footed cannibalfly, are as big as your thumb. All are more deadly than Dracula — if you’re an insect.

Unlike Hollywood vampires, which prowl at night, robber flies hunt during the hottest part of the day. They perch on the tip of a leaf or a tall blade of grass and scan the sky, waiting for lunch to fly by. When a robber spots another insect, it zips skyward to ambush the unsuspecting bug. Robber flies stab their pointy mouthparts into prey and pump in saliva. The saliva paralyzes the victim and turns its insides to mush, which the robber fly sucks out, Dracula style. When the robber is done guzzling its gruesome gruel, the only thing left of the other insect is its shell.

Borer Busters

Hollywood heroes kill vampires by driving a stake through the vampire’s heart. Woodpeckers kill ash borers the same way, but the birds don’t use stakes. Instead, woodpeckers use their long tongues to probe inside hammered-out holes. The tongues are pointy — perfect for skewering ash borers — and barbed so the squiggly insects can’t slide off.

I Vant to Bite Your Bark

Emerald ash borer larvae chew through wood like vampires chew through necks. As they eat, the baby borers create loopy tunnels. Eventually the tunnels encircle the tree. This cuts off the tree’s water and nutrients, which turns the tree as dead as a coffin.

Emerald ash borers have killed 20 million ash trees in the Midwest. To learn how you can battle borers and other tree-killing pests, visit dontmovefirewood.org.

Female Blood Fiends

A mosquito can smell the carbon dioxide in your breath from 150 feet away. Once it locks onto your trail of exhaled air, there isn’t much to keep it from plunging its pointy proboscis (pro-bos-sis) into your skin. But things could be much itchier. Only female mosquitoes guzzle blood. Males drink nectar.

Driving Bloodsuckers Batty

Little brown bats can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. Large colonies of these flying mammals may eat 15 tons of mosquitoes a year. With that kind of appetite, bats work better than garlic for keeping bloodsuckers away.


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This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White