Tag Archives: wasp

It’s not just birds: wasps also threaten airplane safety in Australia

Contrary to popular belief, flying is one of the safest means of transportation, moving millions of people around the world every year. Still, there are always safety issues to consider, and one of these issues are interactions with wildlife, especially birds. Now, a new study shows that wasps can also bring risks to flying aircraft.

Image credit: Flickr / Bob Peterson

Interactions between aircraft and wildlife are frequent and can have serious financial and safety consequences, with a lot of money spent to find ways to reduce the risk. Birds are the most common threat to aircraft, with a host of terrestrial animals also implicated in runway accidents.

“Wildlife is a serious threat to aircraft all over the world. Birds are especially dangerous, and a LOT of money is spent on managing them to reduce the risk of aircraft hitting either on the ground or in the air. Our project highlights that its not just birds (or bears, coyotes etc) that pose a threat to aircraft – insects can too,” says Alan House, lead author of the new study.

The keyhole wasp (Pachodynerus nasidens) is native to South and Central America and the Caribbean region and typically uses man-made structures (or natural cavities) to construct nests. It hunts and captures butterfly, moth, or other insect larvae to put inside the nest and covers it with mud. At airports, ideally-sized cavities are abundant in airside machinery.

Pitot probes are among the most popular cavities for insects. These are hollow instruments projecting forwards from the aircraft fuselage that measure airspeed. Wasps have obstructed them many times in the past, leading to accidents — most notably, in 1996, when an airplane crashed after taking off in the Dominican Republic, presumably due to a wasp.

Researchers Alan House of Eco Logical Australia and colleagues found that keyhole wasps at the Brisbane Airport were responsible for 93 instances of fully blocked replica pitot probes, and the wasps pose a real threat for airplane pilots.

The experiment was triggered by a number of near-misses at Brisbane in which wasps were thought to be responsible for pitot probe obstructions. House and his team wanted to figure out wat species was causing the problem, which part of the airport and airplane model were at greatest and the seasonality of wasp nesting.

The researchers used 3D-printing technology to construct a series of replica pitot probes. Real ones are expensive difficult due to their cost, House told ZME Science, so they chose replica probes from the most common aircraft. The probes were attached on steel panels that resemble aircraft skins and then mounted at gates where aircraft park whilst in transit.

The findings showed that only the exotic keyhole wasp nested in the pitot probes. No native species did so, except a parasitoid wasp but it wasn’t responsible for the blockage of the probe. Most of the blockages happened at one end of the airport, which means there was a hotspot preferred by the wasps.

Still, the results underscore mitigation strategies, such as setting traps to intercept the wasps or covering pitot probes, the researchers argue. Nesting activity followed a predictable pattern, being highest in the warmer months of November-May, which means. This pattern follows that for the species in its native range. Nesting success (the proportion of nests producing live adults) was optimal between 24 and 31°C.

The most common aircraft using Brisbane Airport (Boeing 737 and Airbus A320/330) were the most popular with the wasps for nesting, the researchers found. The study covered a 39-month period between 2016 and 2019, in which 93 instances of fully blocked process were recorded by the researchers.

The study is already achieving something: airport operators are starting to become more aware of these issues, House concludes.

“We’re hoping that airports and airlines in other parts of the sub-tropics and tropics (where this wasp can live) will also take note. Although the issues of wasps and aircraft is known elsewhere, this is the first attempt to quantify the risk and suggest mitigation measures,” House told ZME News.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Newly-discovered parasitoid wasps in South America can mind-control their victims

A newly-discovered parasitoid wasp from South America can alter the behavior of its host spiders.

Do you find wasps terrifying? Then brace yourself: there are mind-controlling wasps in the rainforests of the Amazon and the cloud forests of the Andes. Fifteen species of them.

Image credits Kari Kaunisto.

No need to break out in terrified screaming, however: their hosts of choice are spiders, not humans.

Fifteen shades of ‘Nope!’

The discovery of the fifteen new species was reported on by a group of researchers from the Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku who specialize in parasitoid wasps. What is a parasitoid wasp? I’m so glad you asked, it’s terrifying.

Parasitoid wasps aren’t full-blown parasites, but they’re not not-parasites, either. They’re parasites because they need a host body to breed: the wasps have to inject their eggs into the bodies of other insects. Depending on the species, this leads to one of two very, very unenviable outcomes: the eggs hatch into a larva which lives either inside or on the surface of their host. In the first case, the host is allowed to live normally until the eggs hatch and the larva starts eating it from the inside out. The second scenario probably sounds less horrifying, but no — wasp larvae that develop outside the host are idiobiont, meaning they completely paralyze their host. And then eat them.

In either case, this eventually and slowly leads the host’s (I assume welcomed) death.

They definitely won’t win any contest for ethical reproduction practices, but the parasitoid wasp taxon is definitely successful, being one of the most species-rich families of animals on Earth.

One region where their diversity is still poorly known is in the tropics. The authors of the current paper were investigating the lowland rainforests of the Amazon and the cloud forests of the Andes in order to record parasitoid species in the area, a project that has been underway for almost 20 years now. They report finding 15 new, sizeable species of wasp in the genus Acrotaphus, which parasitize spiders.

But these wasps are especially interesting in a nightmarish sort of way, even for their taxa. When a female Acrotaphus attacks a spider, it temporarily paralyzes it with a venomous sting. A single egg is then laid on the spider, which hatches into a larva — this larva, the team found, can alter the behavior of its host in a very complex way.

“During the time period preceding the host spider’s death, it does not spin a normal web for catching prey. Instead, the parasitoid wasp manipulates it into spinning a special web which protects the developing pupa from predators,” says Ilari E. Sääksjärvi, Professor of Biodiversity research from the University of Turku and co-author of the paper.

“Host manipulation is a rare phenomenon in nature, which makes these parasitoid wasps very exciting in terms of their evolution.”

It’s not an even battle for the spider, either. The largest species the team found can grow multiple centimeters in length.

The paper “eview of the New World genus Acrotaphus Townes, 1960 (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Pimplinae), with descriptions of fifteen new species” has been published in the journal Zootaxa.

Adult Zatypota wasp. Credit: University of British Columbia.

Gruesome parasitic wasp turns social spiders into ‘zombies’

A newly discovered species of parasitic wasp has one of the most brutal and Machiavellian ways of securing resources. The wasp targets social spiders that live in colonies in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which it infects with larvae that hijack the arachnid’s brains. The spiders are no longer in control, virtually turning into zombies whose only purpose is to do the wasp’s bidding.

Adult Zatypota wasp. Credit: University of British Columbia.

Adult Zatypota wasp. Credit: University of British Columbia.

By far the greater number of wasps (over 100,000 species) are parasitoids which lay their eggs in or on the caterpillars of other insect species. This makes them excellent pest controls and farmers love them because they do little to no damage to crops. In fact, some farmers actually buy parasitic wasps to control insects in their fields.

However, some wasps have taken their freeloading role to a whole new level of gruesomeness. For instance, gall wasps (Bassettia pallida) drill tiny holes in oak trees to eat them from the inside-out. The wasps also use these tunnels, known as ‘crypts’, as shelter and as hatcheries. When the young gall wasps are ready, they will munch through the woody stems and emerge as adults. Another type of wasp, known as Euderus, caught on to this behavior and will lay eggs in these holes, even if they’re occupied by developing gall wasps. In fact, that’s the idea. Once they hatch, the Euderus wasps will chew their way to freedom, eating through the poor gall wasp and emerging through its head! The gall wasp can’t escape because the hole is only big enough to support a developing gall and  Euderus wasp, but not big enough to leave room for the gall wasp’s head to emerge.

The emerald jewel wasp’s strategy, on the other hand, involves “zombifying” cockroaches and injecting them with larvae. The infected cockroach starts grooming extensively, loses its survival instinct and normal responses, and becomes an unwilling host and breakfast for the wasp’s offspring. The offspring wasp will eat the cockroach’s organs in a way that makes the insect stay alive longer, increasing the odds of survival for the offspring. This behavior is rampant that cockroaches had to adapt by using “karate kicks” to protect themselves against the gruesome intruder.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have recently discovered another zombifying wasp while surveying the rainforests of Ecuador. The wasp targets one of only about 25 species of social spiders known in the world. Anelosimus eximius spiders live together in large colonies, where they hunt together and share parental duties.

These spiders will rarely stray from their basket-shaped nests — unless they’ve come across the Zatypota wasp. Philippe Fernandez-Fournier, a former graduate student at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the new study, was puzzled by the strange behavior of some A. eximius spiders, which he saw wandering a couple feet away from the nest. The individuals would spin enclosed webs of dense silk and bits of foliage, known as “cocoon webs”. When some of these structures were collected and examined in the lab, much to everyone’s surprise, the researchers found that these were encasing a wasp.

“Wasps manipulating the behavior of spiders has been observed before, but not at a level as complex as this,” said Philippe Fernandez-Fournier, lead author of the study and former master’s student at UBC’s department of zoology. “Not only is this wasp targeting a social species of spider but it’s making it leave its colony, which it rarely does…These wasps are very elegant looking and graceful. But then they do the most brutal thing.”

Female wasps first lay an egg on the abdomen of the spider, whose larva hatches and then attaches itself to the host. The larva feeds on the spider’s blood-like haemolymph while it is slowly taking over the spider’s body. At some point, the zombified individual starts leaving the colony and spins a cocoon for the larva. After consuming whatever nutrients the spider has left, the larva enters the cocoon fashioned by its arachnid slave, emerging fully developed up to 11 days later.

“But this behavior modification is so hardcore,” Samantha Straus, co-author of the study published in Ecological Entomology and a PhD student at UBC, said in a statement. “The wasp completely hijacks the spider’s behavior and brain and makes it do something it would never do, like leave its nest and spinning a completely different structure. That’s very dangerous for these tiny spiders.”

The researchers believe that the wasps inject the spiders with hormones that make them believe they’re in a different life-stage or cause them to disperse from the colony.

“We think the wasps are targeting these social spiders because it provides a large, stable host colony and food source,” said Straus. “We also found that the larger the spider colony, the more likely it was that these wasps would target it.”

In the future, the researchers plan on returning to Ecuador where they want to further study the same spider colonies and parasitic wasps.

Cockroach uses karate kick escape zombie-making wasps

Few things are more horrific than zombification — for humans and cockroaches alike. To escape this grisly fate, the American cockroach has developed a kicking technique worthy of a karate master.

Zombifying wasps

The emerald jewel wasp truly deserves its name — its bright-green color shining as it swiftly moves about. But what really makes it special is its hunting and reproducing strategy. Ever since the 1940s, scientists have noted the wasp’s unusual reproductive strategy, which involves “zombifying” a cockroach and injecting it with larvae. Essentially, the infected cockroach starts grooming extensively, loses its survival instinct and normal responses, and becomes an unwilling host and breakfast for the wasp’s offspring. The whole process is gruesome.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that another study using radioactive labels showed that the wasp stings precisely into specific ganglia of the roach, mildly and reversibly paralyzing it. This temporary paralysis allows the wasp to inject a secondary dose in the victim’s head, eliminating its escape reflex.

Then, the wasp chews on half of the cockroach’s antennas and — since it is too small to carry it — leads him on to the burrow using the remainder of antennas like a leash. Eventually, the wasp lays a white egg inside the roach, and then leaves, after it fills the burrow with pebbles. The offspring wasp will eat the cockroach’s organs in a way that makes the insect stay alive longer, which increases the survival chances of the offspring. After only one mating session, wasps can successfully parasitize several dozen roaches.

But the cockroach isn’t exactly helpless.

Karate cockroach

“The cockroach has a suite of behaviors that it can deploy to fend off the zombie-makers, and this starts out with what I call the ‘en garde’ position, like in fencing,” said Ken Catania, a Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt. “That allows the roach to move its antenna toward the wasp so it can track an approaching attack and aim kicks at the head and body of the wasp, and that’s one of the most efficient deterrents. It’s reminiscent of what a movie character would do when a zombie is coming after them.

A frame-by-frame capture of the American cockroach defending itself against the emerald jewel wasp. Image credits: Catania Lab.

Catania studies predator-prey interactions, and he heard about this unusual relationship. He was surprised to see that no one had taken a closer look at how cockroaches try to defend themselves from wasps, so he used ultra-slow-speed video to capture roaches using the mechanism time and again to prove and understand it.

Essentially, before the wasp can get into position and deliver the first sting, the cockroach delivers a swift blow with its spiny back leg. It doesn’t always work, but 63% of adults managed to stay safe this way — which still means that 37% were slain. For juveniles, it was even worse: almost all of them failed in their attempt.

The study was published in Brain, Behavior and Evolution.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

Wasp-inspired micro-drone can tug 40 times its own weight

Inspired by the natural world, researchers have designed a microdrone that can pull objects up to 40 times its weight. By anchoring itself to various surfaces using adhesive action inspired by geckos and wasps, the tiny aerial vehicle is able to lift cameras, water bottles, and even pull door handles, while the drone itself is as light as a bar of soap.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

The FlyCroTugs drone was developed by Stanford’s Mark Cutkosky and Dario Floreano at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Other similar drones demonstrated previously could only lift twice their own weight using aerodynamic forces alone. To drastically improve their tiny aerial vehicle’s towing power, the researchers turned to one of the most feared predators in the insect world: the wasp.

When a wasp captures prey too big to transport by flight, it chooses to drag it using different attachment options. Researchers studied the various ways wasps choose to transport prey and computed the ratio of flight-related muscle to total mass that determines whether the predator flies or drags its prey.

“When you’re a small robot, the world is full of large obstacles,” said Matthew Estrada, a graduate student at Stanford and lead author of the new study published in Science Robotics. “Combining the aerodynamic forces of our aerial vehicle along with interaction forces that we generate with the attachment mechanisms resulted in something that was very mobile, very forceful and micro as well.”

When encountering a smooth surface, FlyCroTugs uses gecko-like grippers that create non-sticking intermolecular forces between the adhesive and surface. For rough surfaces, the tiny flying robot sticks its 32 microspines into the small pits of a surface, latching onto it.

Fitting all this hardware inside a robot with only twice the weight of a golf ball was no easy feat, but the team was up to the challenge. What they wound up with was a fast, small, and maneuverable flying robot capable of moving very large loads up to 40 times its own weight.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world, but flying insects do many other things – such as walking, climbing, grasping, building – and social insects can even cooperate to multiply forces,” said Floreano in a statement. “With this work, we show that small drones capable of anchoring to the environment and collaborating with fellow drones can perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”

FlyCroTugs represents a paradigm shift away from drones occupying a single niche. Not only does it show that drones are excellent for navigating remote locations, but they can also be used to interact with the physical world. In tests, FlyCroTugs flew atop a crumbling structure from where it hauled up a camera and even opened a door with the help of another drone (see the video).

In the future, the team hopes to develop an autonomous system that enables them to maneuver and coordinate multiple FlyCroTugs at once.

“The tools to create vehicles like this are becoming more accessible,” said Estrada. “I’m excited at the prospect of increasingly incorporating these attachment mechanisms into the designer’s tool belt, enabling robots to take advantage of interaction forces with their environment and put these to useful ends.”

The two holes on the right are blocked by the heads of Bassettia pallida wasps. Credit: Sean Liu.

Parasite wasp manipulates another wasp species to work for it, then drills through the host’s head

The two holes on the right are blocked by the heads of Bassettia pallida wasps. Credit: Sean Liu.

The two holes on the right are blocked by the heads of Bassettia pallida wasps. Credit: Sean Liu.

Gall wasps (Bassettia pallida) must think they’re very clever. Their modus operandi involves drilling tiny holes in oak trees to eat it from the inside. The wasps also use the tunnels, known as ‘crypts’, as shelter and as hatcheries. When the young gall wasps are ready, they will munch through the woody stems and emerge as adults.

This parasite, however, got a taste of its own medicine.

It seems another, newly identified wasp called Euderus set likes to lay eggs in these holes, even if they’re occupied by developing gall wasps. In fact, that’s the idea. Once they hatch, the Euderus wasps will chew their way to freedom, eating through the poor gall wasp and emerging through its head! The gall wasp can’t escape because it had been previously manipulated to drill the crypt with a few months earlier than it was supposed to. The resulting hole is big enough to support a developing B. pallida and E. set wasp, but it’s not big enough to leave room for the B. pallida’s head to emerge.

#NatureisMeta

Credit: Rice University.

It’s a totally gruesome, Machiavelian thing to do but there are no morals in nature.

The Rice University researchers who discovered the new species says Euderus set — named so after ‘Set’, the evil Egyptian god, and nicknamed the ‘crypt keeper’ — is a rare example of hypermanipulation. In other words, it’s a parasite that manipulates another parasite. The manipulator has become the manipulated.

The researchers released two papers on this behavior. The first, published in ZooKeys describes the new species in the detail while the second, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, discusses this remarkable strategy in great detail.

Rice evolutionary biologists Kelly Weinersmith and Scott Egan brought wasp-infected stems into the lab, which they conveniently found and retrieved from the campus. They identified head-blocked crypts and classed them into two groups. The first group was left alone while the other holes were secured with a thin strip of bark. Come spring, E. set is ready to emerge but the wasps from crypts covered with barks were three times likelier to die stranded in the holes.

This experiment suggests that E. set, which has weak jaws, can’t penetrate the tree bark by itself and must be manipulating the gall wasps somehow to do the job for them.

Left: Bassettia pallida. Right: the crypt-keeper wasp, Euderus set. Credit yan Ridenbaugh and Miles Zhang / Andrew Forbes.

Left: Bassettia pallida. Right: the crypt-keeper wasp, Euderus set. Credit yan Ridenbaugh and Miles Zhang / Andrew Forbes.

“It could be the parasitoid cues hosts to excavate early, but makes them do it less well than usual,” said Weinersmith. “They only go part way and then they get stuck.

“That’s what I love about parasite manipulation of host behavior,” she said. “So many of the stories that have been uncovered are just as cool as the coolest science fiction movie.”

The researchers now hope to discover how the hypermanipulator triggers behavioral changes in the gall wasps. The fact that their view from inside the crypt is obscured makes it a challenging work but there are solutions, like CAT scans.

 

 

Caught in the act: Scientists find new species of wasp evolving

The concepts of biodiversity and evolution are generally thought of as something that occurs in thousands, maybe millions of years – but every once in a while, scientists catch a species red handed: evolving, becoming a new species.

The parasitic wasp, Utetes canaliculatus, on a snowberry shrub, searching for its Rhagoletis fly host.

A new biological study from Rice University did just that, finding that evolutionary changes in one fruit fly species are having a domino effect on at least three species of predatory wasps, forcing them to evolve as well.

“Our study addresses one of the central questions in biology: How do new forms of life originate?” said evolutionary biologist Scott Egan, assistant professor of biosciences at Rice and a co-author of the new study, which is available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They study comes at the back of previous research by Egan and colleagues on the fruit fly Rhagoletis pomonella, aka the “apple maggot,” which began plaguing U.S. apple growers in the 1850s. Their work showed that Rhagoletis is changing its eating habits so much that it’s actually diverging into two different species. The cycle is driven by the different timing of fruiting cycles between apple trees, which some of them now prefer, and the North American hawthorn, where they traditionally used to lay their eggs. Interestingly enough, human horticulture is leading to the development of a new species.

“Our new work takes a close look at the evolutionary process termed ‘sequential speciation,’” Egan said. “Sequential speciation identifies the fact that adaptation and speciation of one species is not an isolated process. The appearance of a new species creates new niche opportunities that can be exploited by other species, and that opportunity can promote the origin of other new species.”

Now, this study found that something similar is happening to three wasp species – they are already undergoing significant changes, both in genetic terms and in terms of their physiology and behavior.

 

“The new study extends the earlier work by showing that new fruit fly species provide suitable habitat not just for one new parasitoid species, but for multiple new species,” said study co-author James Smith, a Michigan State entomologist.

This type of evolution happens in sequential events, also called “cascading” events. Studying these events could provide researchers with additional information about why certain organisms like plants and insects are more diverse and species-rich than other groups, such as mammals.

“Why are there so many insect species?” Smith asked. “Speciation cascades provide one explanation for how a lot of species might be generated in a relatively short period of time.”

It also shows that despite what many people think, biology can be quite dynamic, and happen much faster than expected.

Glen Hood, a Ph.D. student at Notre Dame and lead author of the paper, said:

“Our study has impacted our understanding of evolution by suggesting that change in individual lineages can reverberate through different trophic levels of an ecosystem and increase community-level biodiversity.”

Parasitic wasps turn spiders into zombies… again!

Wasps are a nasty bunch; you don’t want to mess with them no matter who you are. Not only can they sting you really bad and ruin your day, they can actually control your mind, force you weave a web for their offspring and then kill you – well, if you’re a spider at least.

A wasp larva perches on its hapless spider host. (Keizo Takasuka)

The Reclinervellus nielseni wasps deposit their eggs in spiders, which initially, is nothing but a nuisance to the spiders. However, after the eggs hatch, the larvae actually force the spiders to hatch a reinforced web to keep them safe as they transition into adulthood – after which, they kill their hosts.

Several parasites can control the minds of their hosts and lead them to demise. A certain fungus can control the mind of ants while jewel wasps can do the same thing to cockroaches. In fact, it seems like wasps are masters of mind control! New research out today in the Journal of Experimental Biology details the intricate process through which Reclinervellus nielseni does this.

In order to figure this out, Keizo Takasuka of Kobe University’s agriculture science graduate school looked at the Cyclosa argenteoalba spider’s web construction. He found that the spider weaves two different types of webs: an orb web, for hunting, and a resting web. The hunting webs are thicker and sticky in order to trap insects, while the resting ones are looser and with fluffy decorative elements. But he also observed that sometimes, infested spiders create a different kind of web, one that serves as a nest for their parasitic hosts – the wasps. After it’s done, for all its efforts, the spider just gets eaten.

 

A Cyclosa argenteoalba orb web. (Keizo Takasuka)

After they hatch from the eggs, they start feeding from the liquid inside the spider and compels it to follow instructions for a new type of web. The spiders actually destroy their orb webs to build a wasp cocoon; after this is done, the larva kill the spider and turn the web into an actual cocoon. It’s a cruel and painstaking process which you can watch below, if you have the heart for it.

The exact mechanism through which the parasite controls its host are, as with other parasitic cases, still a mystery. It is most likely some type of chemical, a hormone that encourages the spider to build a specific type of web. The next step for Takasuka is to understand this mechanism and see how the wasp evolved into such a complex breeding cycle.

In the meantime, we’re just thankful we’re not spiders.

Watch: The Inside of a Huge Wasp Colony

Some wasps decided to build their colony next to the window of Youtube user Vang Tsal. Naturally, he was spooked – wasps are mean, and can be quite difficult to deal with. But instead of panicking and attempting to destroy the hive, he filmed it – and the results are spectacular:

The colony now offers a perfect perspective of wasp life – thankfully, from the safety of the inside of his house.

“Big wasps are building a huge nest in my window,” Tsal writes on his YouTube page. “I can observe its construction in real-time cross-section!”

Pretty incredible, huh? This actually reminds me of a an old episode of BBC’s The One Show, in which host George McGavin, entirely covered by protective gear, enters a wasp colony to document it with a tiny camera.

“What would be really great would be if I could open this up and examine the internal structure,” says McGavin, his voice overlaid atop what is nevertheless some really great footage of the nest’s crowded antechambers. “But there’s so many wasps in there I think it would be a bit dangerous.”

Tsal’s colony cross section offers the best of both worlds! Oh, and he promises that he wouldn’t destroy the colony anytime soon, documenting it as it continues to develop on his Youtube channel.

Researchers find parasitic wasp using zinc-enriched needle to lay eggs in fruits

OK, wasps are nothing to joke around with. They are the scumbags of the animal kingdom – they’re always up to no good. The thing is, they’re really good at being up to no good! After all, they used to grow in dinosaur feces, and they’ve been around for over 100 million years – more than many popular dinosaurs (yes, I’m looking at  you, T-Rex), so they must be doing something right. Now, researchers have captured footage of parasitic wasps which have developed a zinc-tipped drill-like needle for laying eggs in fruits.

Since they are larvae, wasps are killing other things. That’s because they just don’t lay their eggs in random fruits – they choose fruits which already have been impregnated with the offspring of other insects; their larvae will then feed on the larvae of the other insects and develop in the relative safety of the fruit. In the video, we see a wasp penetrate the fruit in order to lay their eggs inside.

Interestingly enough, wasps could actually be useful for once – lead researcher Dr Namrata Gundiah believes the technique they use to drill inside fruits can be used to perform microsurgery:

“She uses her ovipositor… pushing this needle inside [the fruit] at the location, where she has decided to lay her eggs. She has to test the chemical environment inside the fruit as she’s doing this, and she wants to complete this process fast, because as you see in [our] video, there are predators nearby waiting for her.”

To see how the wasp managed to complete this demanding task, the team used an electron microscope to take pictures of the insect’s egg-laying appendage, or ovipositor. Taking measurements, they found that it was enriched with zinc, but only at the teeth like structures – which indicates that it serves a specific purpose. Their study shows the presence of zinc at about 7% by weight at the serrated edges.

“So we think the zinc is there to harden the tips.”

But even if in the end, it doesn’t provide any useful information for surgerey or other applications, it’s still awesome to see how nature ticks.

“In the end though, it’s the fun of seeing how nature works, rather than finding a utilitarian value for it. I’m sure if we look at it long enough, there will be lots of applications that will emerge just knowing how things work in nature.”

Amber spider and wasp

Fantastic 100 million year-old time capsule traps ancient clash between spider and wasp

Amber spider and wasp

Trapped in the web, the wasp knows it’s done for, as it counts the seconds to its impending doom. The spider snatches its prey, and is prepared to act its revenge upon the ancient wasp, which is a parasite of spider eggs. But just as the final killing blow is imminent,  resin oozes from a tree bark and engulfs them both , trapping and freezing the pair in time. One hundred million years later, the scene is still there to tell the story – preserved in pristine condition, the amber fossil showcases not only tiny hairs on the spider, but also 15 intact strands of spider silk.

“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” George Poinar, Jr., a zoology professor at Oregon State University, said in a statement.

“This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web. This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them.”

The event, which took place in  Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley in the Early Cretaceous, is the first and only fossil evidence of a spider attacking prey in its web. Amazingly, this perfectly preserved fossil was excavated in a Burmese mine. Both the spider and wasp species are today extinct, however.

The amber fossil findings were described in the journal Historical Biology.

via Gizmodo

paper wasps faces

Paper wasps recognize each others faces

paper wasps faces

You’ve seen a wasp, you’ve seen another, and might think they all look the same, however it seems that among wasps, at least, the one hive mind doesn’t apply to appearances as well, as a new study shows that  paper wasps developed the ability to recognize each other’s faces, just like humans.

Individuals of a species have learned to identify its kin through various means, the most prevailing of which is face recognition, and for humans at least, this is a highly important part that has its own set of patterns in the brain.

“Studies show that when you look at a face, your brain treats it in a totally different way than it does other images,” Sheehan  said.

“It’s just the way the brain processes the image of a face, and it turns out that these paper wasps do the same thing.”

Scientists at the University of Michigan studied the Polistes fuscatus species of paper wasp, which have extremely variable facial patterns. The particular species of wasps have a brain less than one-millionth the size of a human’s, as well lacking many visual regions of the brain, however despite all this, they’re more than able to differentiate the faces of their kind.

For their study, Michael Sheehan and Elizabeth Tibbetts, tested two wasp species,  P. fuscatusand P. metricus, the later of which has a much less complex social structure, through a T-shaped maze. On each side of the “T” arm an image of a wasp’s face was put, and if the maze wasp chose the right side they’d receive a reward, which in this case was a safe zone. The experiment was repeated several times with image placement interchanged each time, at which time the researchers observed that the wasps were able to choose the safe zone most of time, simply by recognizing the wasp face.

To test this assumption, the researchers introduced simple images with shapes, instead of wasp faces. They found that the wasps learned far more slowly and not as well when faces weren’t involved, enforcing the claim that they have a special face recognition ability.

These results were observed for the P. fuscatus, for the P. metricus things were a lot different. For one, P. metricus wasps basically all look the same and have shown extremely poor face recognition response. Why such a huge discrepancy between the two? Sheehan  says that the P. fuscatus multicolony social structure is the most likely cause.

“They have multiple queens and they all want to reproduce—they all want to be the most dominant. So being able to recognize each other helps them understand who’s already beaten who, who has higher ranking in the hierarchy, and this helps to keep the peace.

“When they aren’t able to recognize each other, [as] we’ve shown before, there was more aggression.”

The researchers suggests that the paper wasps’ brains are tuned to recognize faces of their own species, as with humans.

“Wasps and humans have independently evolved similar and very specialized face-learning mechanisms, despite the fact that everything about the way we see and the way our brains are structured is different,” Sheehan said. “That’s surprising and sort of bizarre.”

National Geographic