“God made bees, but the devil made wasps”
I’ve always hated wasps. They seemed like bees’ evil cousins. Bees, I was told as a boy, wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother them. (Though it’s hard not to bother them when you don’t know they’re in your can of Coke.) Bees make honey. They pollinate flowers. When combined with birds, they somehow make babies. Wasps, however, have all the sting with none of the sweetness. They don’t even have the decency to die when they sting you, which makes them extra fearless. They hover over food court trash cans and investigate the sweat on your forehead, waving wildly like a gun in a madman’s hand.
I’ve always hated wasps, but only when I began studying zoology did I learn how insidious they truly are. There are wasps that lay eggs in ants’ brains, and wasps that zombify cockroaches in order to keep them as living incubators of their young. (Not that I have any great love for roaches, either.) But perhaps the most striking example of their nefariousness is one wasps’ epic battle with a butterfly, in which both species toy with a colony of ants like gods might begin world wars between mere mortals.
The rare European Blue Butterfly Maculinea rebeli is a brood parasite. It lays its eggs in alpine grasses, where the larvae eventually drop to the meadow floor. M. rebeli caterpillars look, sound, and most importantly, smell like the larvae of a local ant species, the ferocious red Myrmica schencki. Their pheromonal costume is so precise that the ants can’t tell the difference between the butterfly larvae and their own, and, assuming they’ve found an ant grub that somehow escaped the nest, they carry it back to the nursery to care for it. So the butterfly isn’t exactly an angel, as it dupes and exploits the ants into raising and protecting its young, but the pheromones the larva produces do inspire a tender, maternal love in its surrogate parents.
Not so for the endangered Ichneumon eumerus wasp. We don’t know how the wasp finds the butterfly larvae which host its eggs: Whether it’s the sound the butterfly larvae make, or the pheromones they produce. But whatever it is that fools the ant doesn’t fool the wasp, which can detect and seek out any ant nest that is harboring an imposter butterfly grub. The I. eumerus wasp carries with it a dazzling set of biochemical weapons — an arsenal of pheromones which affect ant behavior. One compound attracts ants, another compound repels ants, and yet another compound causes the ants to become hyper-aggressive. When the intruding wasp is attacked by the ants, it releases all three at once, a chemical cocktail which causes sheer panic in the ant colony. Unsure whether to attack the wasp or run away from it, the enraged ants turn on each other. Like a bar-room brawl in an old Western, the riot spreads throughout the colony, ants piling on ants in full civil war. Meanwhile, the wasp finds the butterfly larvae, lays her eggs in them, and leaves. Once the pheromonal spell is broken, the ants shake off their violent visions and continue to care for the grub until it metamorphoses… into another parasitic wasp. Of course, when the new wasp emerges from its cocoon, the discord begins again while the youngster makes its escape.
So here is an animal that sows the seeds of war and pandemonium where ever it goes, that turns sister against sister in order to gain its advantage. Both the butterfly and the wasp fool the ants into caring for their spawn, but while the butterfly inspires nurturing protocols, the wasp inspires fear and wrath, exploiting the butterfly’s chemical message of peace to hide its own deadly offspring. The Biblical parallel is irresistible — when I see the ants fighting, I think of Revelations, the butterfly of the Second Coming and the parasitized Anti-Christ. After all, if God is really a part of your brain, as recent studies have found, then holy war can be produced by something that changes brain chemistry: pheromones, or their media equivalent, propaganda. In fact, the parable of the butterfly, the wasp, and the ants speaks to me of the quintessence of war. The belligerent ants don’t fight over territory or resources, but simply because they’ve been hypnotized. They are confused and angry for no reason they can tell. The war is created as a distraction for the powerful parasite, who strolls through the chaos to take what it wants. In the melee, it plants its seed deep in the body of an innocent, fooling the witless pawns into raising their own nemesis. Now, does that wasp remind you of anyone?