Cuckoo wasps are the ultimate bad house guests, hiding their eggs in other insects’ nests and then hatching and eating their ‘siblings’.
Researchers in Norway were able to identify an entirely new cuckoo wasp from a single specimen.
To infiltrate the homes of unsuspecting wasps, the deadly insects mimic the pheromones of their hosts – and to avoid inbreeding, each species of cuckoo wasp chooses a different host.
Although visually and genetically almost identical to Chrysis brevitarsis, the newcomer spoke a different chemical ‘language’, meaning it was an entirely new species.
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Researchers in Norway were able to determine that Chrysis parabrevitarsis was a new species because it used a different ‘language’ than an almost identical species. Cuckoo wasps infiltrate nests by mimicking the pheromones of their victims
Like the infamous cuckoo bird, cuckoo wasps lay their eggs in the homes of other creatures – in this case, the hives of other wasps and bees.
Their larvae grow faster and hatch earlier than the host’s eggs, allowing them to devour the host wasp’s eggs, larvae and all food.
While the shiny metal exterior of cuckoo wasps is eye-catching, even experts find it difficult to distinguish different species.
Entomologists have struggled to classify different species of these jewel-like wasps for over 200 years because they are so similar and even genetic differences are microscopic.
Cuckoo wasps, like this Chrysis sexdentata, despot their eggs in another wasp nest. Their larvae grow faster and hatch before their host’s progeny, allowing them to eat their adopted ‘siblings’
Researchers in Norway found themselves in awe of two cuckoo wasps, unable to determine whether they were both Chrysis brevitarsis or whether there was a new species.
“Normally we distinguish insects from each other by their appearance, but cuckoo wasps are so similar that it becomes difficult,” said Frode Ødegaard, an entomologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Over the past decade, DNA barcoding has made it easier to distinguish different cuckoo wasps, but it is not 100 percent effective.
“In this case, we had two cuckoo wasps with microscopic differences in appearance and very small differences in DNA,” said Ødegaard.
Their solution, described in a new report published in the journal Insect Systematics and Diversity, was to look at the ‘language’ the two wasps used.
To infiltrate their victims’ nests, cuckoo wasps learn to mimic the pheromones they release to communicate with the rest of the hive.
WHY DO WASP-STINGS HURT SO MUCH?
Wasp stings tend occur in the later summer months when the colony’s social fabric is collapsing.
At this point, the group’s mindset is changing from raising worker wasps to raising fertile queens, who hibernate to establish new colonies the following spring.
Once the queen has laid eggs, she stops producing the hormone that keeps the colony organized.
This leads to the wasps becoming confused and disoriented and they tend to stray into sweet smelling human foods, such as ice cream and jam.
Scaring people aggravate the insects with waving hands and slapping on magazines, causing them to become prone to stinging.
It is designed as a self-defense mechanism, but unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times.
The stingers remain intact and are often primed with venom that enters the bloodstream.
Peptides and enzymes in the poison break down cell membranes, releasing the cell contents into the bloodstream
This can happen with nerve cells and these are connected to the central nervous system.
This break causes the injured cell to send signals back to the brain. We experience these signals in the form of pain.
There are chemicals in the wasp sting that slow blood flow, which lengthens the pain period.
Wasp stings can be uncomfortable, but most people recover quickly and without complications.
To avoid interbreeding, closely related wasp species often have completely different languages, the authors explained.
When they observed the two wasps, they confirmed that they had infiltrated different hosts and ‘spoke’ different languages.
“The evolutionary development associated with the melting down of another species is very rapid,” said Ødegaard.
“That’s why you can have two species that are genetically very similar, but still belong to different species.”
Because it is so similar to C. brevitarsis, Ødegaard gave the new species the scientific name Chrysis parabrevitarsis, meaning ‘the one standing next to brevitarsis’. ‘
C. parabrevitarsis is so rare that only one specimen has been found on a sand dune on the Lista peninsula at the southern tip of Norway.
It lives in forest clearings and, according to the authors, lives in dead trees, and its favorite ‘victim’ is a subspecies of the potter wasp.
For the common name of C. parabrevitarsis, Ødegaard coined the Norse term ‘sporegullveps’ or ‘golden spur wasps’, as it is characterized by two identical spores on the middle tibiae.
It’s a very special honor to name a species, he said.
You put yourself in a sense in the perspective of eternity, for that species will always have that name. There is something very fundamental about it. ‘
Not all wasps are such towers: In February, researchers in the UK reported neotropical paper wasps ‘babysitting’ neighboring nests.
Paper wasps are named for the papery substance they make from chewed plant fibers to build their nests.
Scientists at the University of Bristol studied some 20,000 paper wasp babies and their keepers from 91 different colonies in Panama.
They found that as the colonies got bigger, there was a surplus of labor that allowed some wasps to leave and help smaller colonies with labor shortages.
Since those remote colonies are still related, helping them ensure that the DNA they share with the ‘nanny’ wasp survives.
“These wasps can act like wealthy relatives who lend a hand to their second cousins,” said Patrick Kennedy, a research fellow at the School of Biological Sciences who studies animal altruism.
“If there is not much more you can do to help your immediate family, you can turn your attention to the extended family.”
Kennedy said the behavior was really unusual “when you consider that most wasps, ants and bees are extremely hostile to outsiders.”