Sometimes horror is a matter of perspective. For example, parasitoid wasps–some of the most horrifying hymenoptera–are also some of the most beneficial to humankind. The parasitoid wasps are a hugely diverse superfamily among the hymenoptera consisting of more than 6000 different species. These insects are ancient, successful, and profoundly useful for controlling invasive species or pests (particularly various arthropods), however as soon as one knows what “parasitoid” means it becomes difficult to regard these wasps without revulsion and distaste. A parasitoid is a creature which lives inside another creature (the host) and ultimately kills/destroys that host by consuming it or by bursting out of it. The detailed dynamics of this relationship are often grisly in the extreme, but they highlight the bizarre (not to say disturbing) mutualism which is such a feature of the natural world.
Parasitoid wasps are especially alarming because of the extent to which they can manipulate the behavior of their host. For example the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa) is a solitary hunting wasp which finds a single cockroach and delivers a mildly paralytic sting to the roach’s thorax. This first sting temporarily incapacitates the roach and allows the wasp to carefully make a second more meaningful sting to a precise spot in the roach’s brain which control’s the roach’s escape response. Not only does the wasp know where to sting, she utilizes a toxin which specifically blocks receptors for the neurotransmitter octopamine. The wasp then chews off a portion of the roach’s antennae and returns to her layer leading the captive roach by holding its damaged antenna like a leash. Inside the wasp’s burrow she plants a single egg on the roach’s belly and then seals the zombified insect inside the chamber with sand and pebbles. After three days the wasp’s egg hatches and the new larva feeds for 4–5 days on the external portions of the roach. It then burrow inside the still living roach and devours the creature’s organs in a progression which leaves the roach alive for a maximum length of time. When the roach is near death the wasp larva builds a cocoon inside it, metamorphoses into an adult, and then bursts out of the roach carcass and flies off.
Across the many different parasitoid wasps there are many variations of this behavior involving different arthropod hosts–and specifically targeting the host’s eggs, lava, or adult form. Additionally there are sundry vectors by which the parasitoid wasps control their hosts. Not all wasps utilize targeted neuropoisons like the emerald cockroach wasp. Wikipedia elaborates on how close the biochemical relationship between the parasitoid wasps and their hosts can become:
Endoparasitoid species often display elaborate physiological adaptations to enhance larval survival within the host, such as the co-option of endosymbiotic viruses for compromising host immune defenses. These polydnaviruses are often used by the wasps instead of a venom cocktail. The DNA of the wasp actually contains portions that are the templates for the components of the viral particles and they are assembled in an organ in the female’s abdomen known as the calyx.
In other words some wasps utilize ancient hunks of rogue DNA to directly or indirectly control (and then destroy) their host organisms.
The biochemical sophistication of the parasitoid wasps does not end there. Certain wasps seem to have a symbiotic relationship with plants. When these plants are gnawed by harmful insects (especially beetles or caterpillars) the plants release specific chemicals which summon the parasitoid wasps, which, in turn, destroy the insects. An example of this can be found in that most ubiquitous of American staple crops, corn. When beet armyworm caterpillars (Spodoptera exigua) start eating a live corn plant, it releases a chemical which attracts parasitiod wasps of the species Cotesia marginiventris (the larvae of which utilize beet armyworm caterpillars as hosts). If however the corn is invaded by corn earworns (Helicoverpa zea) it will release a different chemical which attracts a different wasp Microplitis croceipes. As scientists look further into such relationships, they are discovering that most plants have a vast range of chemical tags which are appealing to specialized parasitoid wasps (and to sawflies). Perhaps one of the reasons that various blights have been able to make such deep incursions in new ecosystems is the absence of plants’ terrifying little friends.