An accidental discovery

Many insects are difficult to identify at the larva/nymph or pupa stage of their life cycle, so I often rear juvenile insects through to adulthood to be certain of what they are. Sometimes the insect which emerges inside the container is not what I was expecting!

A few years ago I was sent some insect specimens to be identified. The insects were causing considerable damage (lots of distorted and shriveled leaves) to a Murraya hedge (Murraya paniculata) in a garden on the NSW central coast. Peering down my microscope I could see what looked like psyllid nymphs (Psyllidae), but I couldn’t see any psyllid adults to confirm it. In the image below you can see a nymph with wing buds (indicated by the arrow). I must admit it’s not the best image I’ve ever shot!

psyllid murraya

I put the nymphs, and the leaves they were on, into a sealed container and waited. A few days later there were tiny adult insects about 2mm long flying around inside the container. They were not psyllids; they were tiny wasps – the parasites of psyllids! I identified the little wasps as being in the genus Psyllaephagus (Hymenoptera: Encyrtidae). There are about 60 wasps in that genus found in Australia, and they are exclusively parasites of psyllids – so the insects damaging the Murraya hedge had to be psyllids! After a few days my jar was full of these little wasps, indicating that the psyllid infestation on that Murraya hedge was heavily parasitised.

Psyllaephagus

So what to do with the hedge? Psyllids can be controlled with a couple of horticultural oil sprays. But an oil spray would kill parasitic wasps, especially ones this small, as efficiently as killing the psyllid nymphs. The specimens in the jar indicated that the majority of the psyllids were parasitised, and would cause no further damage. Personally I wouldn’t spray at all in such a situation, because I would be confident of the wasps winning the overall battle. However it is difficult to convince other people to let nature take its course – yep, the hedge was sprayed by the landowners. I need to be more convincing next time!

I have had unexpected guests in my insect containers on other occasions. For example, I collected a mantid egg case (ootheca) and kept it in a container on my desk so I could watch the nymphs hatch. Unfortunately I didn’t put the lid on the container properly. One morning I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see several tiny mantid nymphs lined up on the top of my computer monitor. There were also several on my desk lamp, my phone, book shelves, the slatted blind, computer speakers, the printer, and so on. It took a while, but I managed to wrangle them all into a container and released them outside.

mantis nymph

Later that day I was able to take some photographs (like the one above) and videos (I’ll use that footage sometime) of other mantid nymphs emerging from the egg case. But it was what happened next that was more interesting. When I examined the container a couple of days later what did I found flying around inside it? You guessed it – several parasitic wasps (about 3-4mm body length). I identified them as Podagrion sp. (Hymenoptera: Torymidae) wasps – known parasites of mantid egg cases.

Podagrion

As you can see from the photograph above the female wasp has a long ovipositor (it’s as long as her body), but she must insert it in a mantid egg case before it hardens. To achieve this she either follows the mantid female, or hitches a ride (a behaviour known in zoology as phoresy). As soon as the mantid egg case is complete, she inserts her eggs inside. Later, the wasp eggs hatch into wasp larvae which feed on the mantid eggs within the protection of the mantid egg case. In the end about 100 mantid nymphs and 50 Podagrion wasps emerged from that single mantid egg case. Male Podagrion wasps are pretty cool too (below). They look just like the female but without the long ovipositor.

Podagrion male

As mentioned above, the mantid egg case yielded a mixture of mantid nymphs and Podagrion parasitic wasps. In other words the mantids weren’t wiped out entirely. Some people think that parasitism is a bad thing. I think it’s incredible that these tiny wasps have evolved to occupy an ecological niche such as the inside of a psyllid nymph, or a mantid egg case! The wasps’ lives are so entwined with that of their host insects, that the wasps can’t survive without that other insect. If the wasps killed 100% of their hosts 100% of the time, the wasps would die out. That would be a tad counterproductive!

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Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Insects that are armed with powerful stings are often strikingly coloured to warn off potential predators – a strategy known as aposematism . A good example of this is the black and yellow colour pattern of the European wasp (Vespula germanica).

Vespula germanica

Some harmless insects take on the appearance of aposematic insects even though they are not actually dangerous themselves. Hover flies are an example of this. One common hover fly species the drone fly Eristalis tenax – is an excellent bee mimic, and was the star in a recent ‘one minute bugs’ video (link).

Other common hover flies (image below) are harmless flower visitors but their striking yellow and black markings superficially resemble the markings of bees or wasps. Bees and wasps usually have stings and consequently are left alone by many predators. Hover flies don’t have stings, so by adopting colour patterns similar to bees and wasps this affords the hover flies some protection. This defence strategy is known as Batesian mimicry.

Bee mimic

Now for a wee bit of history. H.W. Bates (hence ‘Batesian’) was the first scientist to conduct a major study on mimicry – in the Amazon Basin in the 1860s. Charles Darwin recognised Bates’s work on mimicry as critically important to the theory of evolution, and cited it extensively in later editions of his own great work The Origin of Species. Darwin appears to be quite a fan, because in a letter to Bates in 1862 Darwin wrote:

“Dear Bates. I have just finished, after several reads, your paper. In my opinion it is one of the most remarkable and admirable papers I have ever read in my life.  .  . Your paper is too good to be largely appreciated by the mob of naturalists without souls; but, rely on it, that it will have lasting value, and I cordially congratulate you on your first great work.”

I am particularly intrigued by insects which mimic other insects that would normally appear very different from their own body shape. It’s easy to see how a yellow and black patterned fly could look like a bee or a wasp (e.g. the hover fly), but how about a beetle which looks like a spider-hunting wasp? The yellow-horned clerid beetle Trogodendron fasciculatus (Cleridae) – image below – mimics the spider-hunting wasp Fabriogenia sp. (Pompilidae) – lower image.

Trogodendron

If you place them side-by-side you might think the resemblance is only superficial – dark bodies and yellow/orange antennae. It’s when they move that you see mimicry at its best. Spider-hunting wasps move in a characteristically jerking manner and flick their antennae constantly as they look for spiders. The yellow-horned clerid beetle mimics these movements exactly, so much so that when you see one moving you would swear that it is a wasp. The beetle would then be completely safe from predators especially spiders. No sane spider would want to go near an insect that appears to be a spider-hunting wasp!

Spider wasp
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Hunting the Hunter (Part 1)

You would think that a spider as robust (and venomous) as a huntsman spider (Sparassidae) would be pretty safe from predatory and parasitic insects. But not so. This article is the first in a series on the insects which make a meal of large spiders.

A few years ago I witnessed a titanic struggle taking place on a window at the front of our house. A large spider hunting wasp (or ‘spider wasp’) was pulling a huntsman spider backwards up the window glass.

Wasp and huntsman

Continue reading Hunting the Hunter (Part 1)

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