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Maculinea arion

Hey, look at that!  It’s a delicate pale blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) from Europe and northern Asia. What could this ethereal creature have to do with the horror theme which this blog has been following as a lead-up to Halloween?  In fact, what does the butterfly have to do with any of Ferrebeekeeper’s regular themes?  Butterflies are lepidopterans rather than the hymenoptera we favor here.

As it turns out—the butterfly has a lot to do with hymenopterans.  Maculinea arion, or “the large blue butterfly ” to use its not-very-creative English name, may look innocent as a butterfly, but in its larval stage the creature is both appalling and remarkable.   Alcon caterpillars are myrmecophiles—which means the caterpillars live in association with ants.  Despite the Greek meaning of ”myrmecophile”  (to love ants) the relationship is anything but loving on the part of the Alcon caterpillar–unless love is meant in the same way as “to love ham”.

Maculinea arion (Large Blue) larva carried by ant (Drawing by Frohawk)

M. arion caterpillars are relentless predators of ant larvae.  The way they obtain this fragile foodstuff is remarkable for sophistication and ruthless guile.  When a caterpillar hatches, it lives for a few days on wild thyme or marjoram plants.  The caterpillar then secretes a sweet substance which attracts red ants which carry the larva back to their tunnels.

Inside the ant hive, the caterpillar produces pheromones and chemical scents which mimic those of the ant queen.  It also scrapes a small ridge on its first segment to produce the same noise as the ant queen. The ants are deceived by the caterpillar’s mimicry and they take it to the chamber where they rear their own larvae.  The ants wait on the caterpillar as though it were the hive monarch and they even feed it ant larvae—their own undeveloped siblings.  Once it pupates, the butterfly scrapes the inside of its chrysalis to continue the deception.  When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon the hapless ants carry it outside and guard it as its wings harden—whereupon the butterfly departs to mate and lay eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants.

Phengaris alcon

The Maculinea Arion is not the only caterpillar to make use of this strategy.   The Phengaris alcon butterfly acts in almost exactly the same way.  Here is where the story becomes impressively crazy.   A parasitoid wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, feeds on the alcon caterpillar inside the ant hive.  The wasp infiltrates the hive by spraying a pheromone which causes the ants to attack each other.  While they are busy fighting, the wasp lays its eggs inside the caterpillar.  The wasp larvae hatch into the body of the caterpillar (which the ants think of as a queen) and they eat the caterpillar host safe in the cloak of this deception.

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

If an ant hive becomes too saturated with caterpillars it will die and all three species inside the hive will likewise perish).   The red ants in this scenario are constantly evolving new pheromone signals to outcompete the caterpillars and wasps—which in turn coevolve with the ants.  It’s strange to imagine the troubling world of deception, chemical warfare, and carnage just beneath the ground.

Assyrian Sculpture (ca. 10th-8th century BC)

Imagine having a thick luxurious beard which would make an Assyrian king proud.  Pretty appealing! OK, now imagine if that heavy beard were composed of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of live bees.  Aagh! The loveable little black and yellow creatures are instantly transformed into the stuff of horror! What is wrong with people?

I am too horrified to think of a caption (image credit http://www.thehoneygatherers.com)

With their complex societies, compound eyes, elaborate gendered castes, and preternatural work ethic, bees can sometimes seem quite alien, but nothing the insects do strikes me as so strange as the behavior of the humans involved in the activity of bee bearding.  Since the ancient beginnings of apiculture, beekeepers have put bees on their own bodies to demonstrate their command over their “livestock”.  This practice took a dramatic leap forward in the early 19th century when a visionary Ukranian beekeeper named Petro Prokopovych started popularizing some of his innovations by coaxing large numbers of bees to cover his face and neck in large numbers!  The practice was subsequently adopted by numerous 19th century carnival folk, showmen, and honey sellers in order to stir up interest and make some money, and it continues to this day.

Illustration to “Kidder’s Guide to Apiarian Science” by K.P. Kidder (1858)

In order to create a bee beard, a beekeeper separates a group of bees from a hive and puts them in a box for two days (making sure to feed them with plenty of sugar water).  The beekeeper then puts a tiny cage containing a young queen bee underneath his/her chin, and waits with quiet, calm determination as the carefully released workers follow the queen’s strong pheromones and surround her en mass.  In effect the bee-bearder is creating an artificial swarm—a state of affairs when bees abandon their traditional defensive behaviors.

Undoubtedly you are wondering what it is like to wear an entire colony of flying, stinging insects like an otherworldly scarf.  The Toronto Star asked bee beard expert Melanie Kempers to describe the experience and she said;

It’s kind of like monkeys in a barrel. The original bee holds onto the face and they hold on to each other. It’s kind of little claws, holding on to the skin, If I try to move my face, they hold on with all their might, it feels like a sunburn. The skin is tight.

That’s a pretty blasé way to describe wearing a lot of living things—and bee beards can be made up of truly huge numbers.  In 1998, the record holder, an American animal trainer named Mark Biancaniello, wore a beard (or maybe a body suit) consisting of 350,000 bees–which together weighed just under 40 kilograms (about 87 pounds).

There is a brave Chinese beekeeper somewhere inside there, I swear!

As in many other matters, Chinese beekeepers have been pursuing this record.  Although the East Asian apiarists have not beat the record yet, they have done a good job coming up with impressive bee beard stunts.  In fact, a pair of Chinese beekeepers, Li Wenhua and Yan Hongxia, were wed while wearing matching bee swarms! The real trick behind bee beards is safely removing them.  Apparently the wearer leaps straight into the air and comes down in a jarring fashion which knocks the bees loose.  Then assistants spray the remaining bees with white smoke as the beekeeper removes stragglers with gentle shaking motions.  That is what I have read at any rate, I have no intention of trying this myself!

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