Monday, December 6, 2021

What's This Bug? The Antlered Wasp.

Closeup of the Antlered Wasp on a green background
It’s Christmastime, and to mark the season I bring you the Antlered Wasp (Eucharitidae).  What these
guys lack in size (they’re less than an inch), they make up for with their large and dramatic antennae. These insects are known as Antlered Wasps, because with a little imagination, they could be itty bitty reindeer (although some people see their “antlers” as punkish mohawks). And while it’s entertaining to view them as tiny reindeer, you will not come across one of these wasps where reindeer reign, as they are tropical insects.

A tint Antlered Wasp on a person's fingertip
Antlered Wasps, like many other wasps, practice parasitism as a part of their life cycle. And they only parasitize ants, an insect that is often the aggressor in the insect world and not the victim. To put an even finer point on it, each specie (there are over 400 species) specializes in a particular species of ant. Here is a list of some of those pairings.

Child-rearing in nature is extremely variable, with some species providing long-term, hands-on care and other species leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. Antlered Wasps are firmly in the latter category. When the female is  ready to lay her eggs, she chooses a plant that is a favorite of ants, or one with an ant colony nearby. She lays her eggs and moves on; after a week to ten days the larvae will hatch. The larvae will then spend several days lolling about on the plant, getting their energy and nerve up, and (presumably) planning their strategy for the next step. The goal of the larvae is to infiltrate the ant colony, so the next step is to find an ant to take it into the nest. For this attachment to happen, most 
A ant queen on her nest with eggs and other offspring
Ant Queen and her offspring
Eucharitid wasp larvae depend on rubbing up against an ant and fastening themselves to it. If there are no available ants around, the wasp larvae will use an intermediary host that can get them up close enough to grab an ant. However, according to this article, the Kapala species in the Eucharitidae family has developed jumping abilities. Apparently, they will stand up on the leaf and jump down onto a passing ant. High diving larvae – nature is amazing.

Once a larva has found its Trojan Horse/ant host, it will ride it right into the ant colony. Ants are notoriously and intensely protective of their nests, so how do these larvae get away with this? It seems they have developed the ability to mimic the odor of the ant larvae. Scientists have observed that ants will avoid the adult wasps, a clear indicator that they view them as a threat. But, thanks to the aromatic camouflage, ants seem to not recognize the wasp larvae as different from theirs. 

Closeup of an ant tending to a newborn wasp.
Ant tending to a newborn wasp
Small black larvae moving along a nearly invisible filament.
Wasp larvae on the move
The camouflaged wasp larva makes its way, with the unwitting help of the ants, deep into the ant colony’s inner sanctum – the brood chamber. This may be the easiest part of their mission, as the wasp simply has to find an ant larva to attach to. Since a queen ant can lay up to 300,000 eggs a day, there is an abundance of potential hosts for the little wasp. Once attached, the wasp larva will begin feeding on its ant counterpart, but it eats just enough to keep them both going until the ant pupates. Once this happens, the wasp will finish off its host. The wasp uses this last bit of ant fuel to finish growing into an adult and will then emerge from its host. At this point, still helpful and unwitting, ants will feed and groom the newborn as they do their own. Eventually, the wasp will fly out of the colony and mate, usually right above the ant nest. 

Closeup of an Antlered Wasp facing the camera

Cartoon ants shouting "Arghh!" fearfullyThe life cycle of the Antlered Wasp could be adapted into a Mission Impossible type action movie. And be as unbelievable. Except this is an incredible true story.

Take Care. 
Submitted by Pam

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