How one enslaving wasp eats through another

Parasite that forces trees to do its bidding gets enslaved itself

Euderus set wasp

PRETTY LITTLE KILLER  Springtime for parasitoids in the southeastern United States means a female Euderus set wasp (one shown) searches oak stems for victims hidden inside.

S.P. Egan et al/ZooKeys 2017

Parasites can drive their hosts to do weird, dumb things. But in certain oak trees, the parasites themselves get played.

“Creepy and awesome,” says Kelly Weinersmith of Rice University in Houston, who has helped reveal a Russian doll of nested parasitisms.

The saga begins when two majestic live oak species in the southeastern United States send out new shoots, and female crypt gall wasps (Bassettia pallida) arrive to lay eggs. A wasp mom uses the delivery ­end of her reproductive tract to drill through tree bark, injecting each of her eggs into a separate spot in the oak.

Wasp biochemistry induces the tree to form a botanical womb with an edible lining largely free of oak defense chemicals. The tree is hijacked into nurturing each larva, and wasp life is good — until the unlucky ones get noticed by a second exploiter.

Another wasp species, a newly discovered Euderus, arrives, barely visible to the naked eye but “amazingly iridescent,” Weinersmith says. Her colleague at Rice, Scott Egan, named these jewel blue and green specks after Set, an Egyptian god of evil and chaos.

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HOLE IN THE HEAD The hole in an oak stem (magnified above) is the tantalizing escape route that a crypt gall wasp almost finished before it died. Its head got stuck, and the darker part of the gap is where a second wasp species, Euderus set, bit through its victim’s head to freedom. Sean Liu

E. set wasps enslave the B. pallida as laborers and living baby food. E. set females sense their prey inside the gall and inject eggs that hatch and feed on the original occupant. When the invaders mature, they are typically too frail to dig themselves out of the tree.

But that’s not a problem, Weinersmith, Egan and colleagues report in the Jan. 25 Proceedings of the Royal Society B. That’s because, despite having a gnawing parasite inside, B. pallida wasps dig a tunnel to freedom.

Almost. When infested with E. set, the tunnelers don’t manage a large enough hole for their own escape. They die with their heads plugging the tunnel exit, perfect for the E. set attackers, who chew an escape hole through the stuck noggins.

Weinersmith and Egan may be the first to describe E. set’s manipulation, but what could be a much earlier example was collected by Alfred Kinsey — yes, that Kinsey. Before shocking mid-20th century America with explicit chronicles of human sexual behavior, he specialized in gall wasps.

Kinsey named more than 130 new species in just three years, collecting at least 5.5 million specimens, now at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. One of his Bassettia has its head stuck in a too-small exit hole in a stem, suggesting a chaos-and-death wasp lurks inside.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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