Chemical Warfare (Part II)

Much like the blue butterfly from the previous post, the ichneumon wasp utilizes chemicals in order to trick the Myrmica ant species. However, they utilize a much crueler method. Instead of simply laying their eggs and allowing the ants to carry them away, the ichneumon wasp injects its eggs into the larvae of the blue butterfly.

Getting to these eggs is of considerable difficulty, as the wasp has to bypass all of the ants around the entrance to the nest as well as those tending to the larvae. When the wasp has located a colony that has taken-in a butterfly larvae, they rush into the ant nest. This seems foolhardy at first but the ichneumon wasp already has a plan. The moment it is attacked by the defenders, it releases a number of chemicals in the area. The chemicals neither kill nor stun; it disables the ants’ ability to detect pheromones, causing them to attack each other.

In all this madness, the ichneumon wasp safely injects its eggs into the blue butterfly caterpillars. As the caterpillars begin to cocoon, the wasp larvae eat away at the caterpillars from the inside, killing them. When the wasp larvae have completed their development into wasps themselves, they burst out of their silky prisons and rush out of the ant nest, spraying their chemicals to cause confusion again.

Chemical Weapons (Part I)

We as humans despise chemical weapons. They’ve been outlawed according to the Laws of War due to their inhumane and indiscriminate killing-potential. Such weapons include nerve gases and, the most well known, mustard gas. However, in the animal kingdom, there are no such boundaries.

A wide variety of both insects and animals use chemicals to stun, confuse, or kill other organisms. The alcon blue butterfly uses pheromones similar to the ones used by Myrmica ant species to not have to take care of their young. In this case, the worker ants seem to identify the larvae of the alcon blue butterfly as their own, carrying them back to the nest and caring for them until they hatch. When the butterflies do hatch, they continue to carry the scent of the host ants and walks out of the nest unharmed.

Communication

Communication is something all organisms require. It allows for interaction within and even between species. For humans, it helps us to exchange information or simply enjoy conversation. It helps a poison dart frog signal to any potential predators that it is poisonous or helps a male gorilla establish his dominance over the group. In whatever form it comes in, it conveys a message.

In the ant, communication is done through pheromones — chemical signals they produce. These pheromones can signal a number of different things: danger, food, and the strength of the queen, to name a few. On top of that, the intensity of the pheromone indicates its importance and brings fewer or more ants to a desired location. Whatever the case may be, they allow ants to communicate with one another, allowing them to work as a single organism.

The Velvet Ant

Despite the rather blatant name of an ant, velvet ants are actually a family of wasps. While the “velvet” portion of the name refers to the bright colour their hairs have, the “ant” portion of the name refers to the females of the species not having wings like the males do. The bright colour is meant as a warning for potential predators.

This bright colouration is common in other small animals such as frogs or caterpillars, and is not just for show either. According to the Schmidt pain index, velvet ants rated at a 3, giving them another name — cow killer — and, much like their bright-coloured brethren, they sting only in defense.

The velvet ant’s exoskeleton is quite tough, allowing the female to invade the nests of ground-nesting bees or wasps to lay their young. They accomplish this by injecting their eggs into the larvae. The young hatch and consume the larva from the inside.

Ant-sized Cows

If you’ve read my post from October 7, 2016 titled “Insects & Agriculture (Part II)”, you may recall some info on the relation that ants and aphids have with each other. Well, just over the weekend, I spotted ants sitting in the leaves of an apple tree. They weren’t moving around too much: just pacing back and forth along the leaf. But as I looked more closely, I noticed tiny green bumps on the leaves. These bumps weren’t the regular bumps you see on tree leaves that indicate that insects have been eating away at them but were, in fact, aphids. You can see a couple of the (albeit blurry) photos I took right here.

Unlike the way ants treat almost every other creature in their vicinity, ants treat aphids with the utmost care. By letting the aphids suck the moisture from the plant, the ants are able to obtain the honeydew that is produced by the aphids. While the ants provide the aphids with protection and “greener pastures”, the aphids pay the ants with the sweetest drops of honeydew.