Parasitic Wasp Employs Zombie Ladybug to Guard Cocoon

Loyal zombie guards cocoon. (nutmeg66/Creative commons)

To quote esteemed mad scientist Seth Brundle, "Insects don't have politics." Theirs is a world of intricate brutality and wasps have been excelling in it for more than a hundred million years.

This latest example comes to us in this paper from France's CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange) and it concerns a wasp that not only hatches from its egg inside the belly of a ladybug, but upon emerging forces its eviscerated host to guard its cocoon while it transitions from larva to full-grown horror wasp.

Dinocampus coccinellae is its name and one can only imagine that "Zombie" author Joyce Carrol Oats keeps a few of them as pets.

To recap, parasitism runs big in the wasp world. As I explain in "How Wasps Work," the ancient wasps of the Cretaceous period were predatory and carnivorous. They ate arachnids and other insects and they LOVED it. But then the rise of the angiosperms introduced an even better food source: nectar and pollen. So the wasps of old largely abandoned their flesh-eating ways, except for the carnivorous feasts required by their squirming young. Some wasps abandoned this practice all together (and became bees), but you'll still find countless varieties of wasps that either deposit their eggs inside a living host (that's what the stinger evolved for) or who fill larval chambers in their nest with stunned meals.

So the fact that that Dinocampus coccinellae hatches inside the belly of a host bug following some make-shift, catastrophic surgery by its parent is nothing out of the ordinary. But when it celebrates its Chest-Burst Mitzvah, that's when it gets all weird and noteworthy. Normally, the host organism mercifully dies at this point, but DC's ladybug is not so lucky. Not only does it live, but a little behavior modification forces it to hang around and "guard" its parasite-baby as it grows into adulthood beneath its protective bulk. Scientists believe that secretions left by the larva when it bursts out might play a role in re-programming the host.

But then the ladybug dies right? Surely once the wasp reaches adulthood, our long-suffering host can at last rest in peace. No such luck. This is the insect world, after all. The researchers found that 25 percent of the manipulated ladybirds recovered normal behavior following their ordeal.

I'm really hoping this makes it into the next PIXAR "A Bug's Life" movie.

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.