Sometimes you just can't win for losing.
This morning a newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) began drying its damp wings, preparing for flight. It had just emerged from its chrysalis. Soon it would be off to do what Gulf Frits do: leave its host plant, the passionflower vine, and find a mate.
It was not to be.
A cunning praying mantis, camouflaged as a green stem, snared it, grasping it in its spiked forelegs. Then it did one praying mantids do. It bit off its head and proceeded to eat it.
Quick and easy prey, for sure. But the mantis was not alone. A European paper wasp, seeking a little free protein to take back to her colony, got into the act, circling the struggling butterfly and taking quick bites.
The wasp carefully evaded the mantid's head and spiked forelegs.
If it it had not, this it would have been a two-course dinner. Butterfly first, wasp second.
Mouse Productions filmed a battle between a praying mantis and a wasp back in 2013. The mantis won. See YouTube video.
You don't hear those two words often, but you'll hear them often from Amy Toth, who's hoping that the hashtag, #wasplove, will draw attention to the wonderful world of wasps.
Toth, known for her work on bee and wasp behavior,genomics, and evolution, is an assistant professor--and outspoken wasp lover--from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames.
She delivered a presentation on honey bees at the UC Davis Bee Symposium on May 9. Then on May 13, she discussed her research on wasps at a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar.
The Bee Symposium showcased a "lot of bee love," and she's hoping that the same love will apply to wasps.
Indeed, folks verbally attack these social insects daily on social media. "I hate them," they say. "What good are they?" To be honest, I've witnessed European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) attacking crippled Gulf Fritillary butterflies in our bee garden, and dismembering and carrying off bits of Gulf Frit caterpillars to feed their colony. Wasps are carnivores. Honey bees are vegetarians.
So, we asked Amy Toth to list what she loves about wasps.
She eagerly obliged!
1. They are pollinators
2. They contribute to biocontrol of lepidopteran pests in gardens and on decorative plants
3. They have been shown to carry yeasts to winemaking grapes that may be important contributors to the fermentation process and wonderful flavors in wine!
4. They are the only known insect (Polistes fuscatus) that can recognize each other as individuals by their faces.
5. They are devoted mothers that will dote on their young all day long for weeks, defending their families with fury.
6. Their social behavior, in my opinion, is the most human-like of any insect. They know each other as individuals, and are great cooperators overall, but there is an undercurrent of selfishness to their behavior, manifest in nearly constant passive-aggressive interactions between individuals.
7. They are artists. They make perfect hexagonal nest cells out of paper, which they make themselves out of tree bark + saliva.
8. They are extremely intelligent. They're predators, architects, good navigators, and great learners. Among insects, they have large brains, especially the mushroom bodies (learning/memory and cognition area of insect brain).
9. They are beautiful, complex, and fascinating creatures!
That's Amy Toth's amazing #wasplove list.
I'd like to add No. 10: They are extremely photogenic.
#wasplove! Think it will catch on?
Last weekend a little critter made its first-ever appearance in our family bee garden. It was neither a grand entrance nor a grand insect.
"A fly!" I thought, as I looked at its knoblike bristle or arista on the end of each antenna.
But its body--what little I could see of it before it winged out of there--definitely resembled a wasp. A Western yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica) or European paper wasp (Polistes dominula).
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, identified it as a syrphid fly, genus Ceriana, family Syrphidae.
Talented Davis photographer Allan Jones captured an excellent photo of Ceriana in 2012. A full body shot: head, thorax and abdomen! His excellent image (second one, below) shows the distinguishing characteristics: two wings (fly), not four wings (bees, wasps), as well as the arista (fly) and the spongelike mouthparts (fly).
BugGuide.Net posted some excellent images of Ceriana on its site. Class: Insecta. Order, Diptera. Family: Syrphidae: Genus: Ceriana.
Ceriana is a genus of wasp mimics. Basically, it's a syrphid fly, a pollinator. It's also known as a hover fly or flower fly as it hovers, helicopterlike, over flowers before drops down to forage.
Would-be predators, no doubt, avoid Ceriana because of its coloration. "Oops, don't mess with that! That's a wasp!"
Picnickers who don't know a faux wasp from a real one would probably run from it, or swat at it.
"It's definitely a good mimic and probably gets a lot of protection from that coloration," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
When you're trying to rear Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae), expect the expected: predators.
It doesn't take long for European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) to find the butterfly's host plant, the passionflower vine (Passsiflora) and prey. We've seen the wasps, with their long hind legs dangling, follow the butterflies as they flit from tendrils to leaves to lay their eggs. The wasps grab the tiny yellow eggs and squirming caterpillars and rip into chrysalids.
They'll attack adult butterflies, too, especially the crippled ones.
Then off they fly with bits of food--protein--for their colony. Wasps are carnivores (unlike their cousins, the honey bees, which are vegetarians).
The European paper wasp, so named because of its European origin, is relatively new to the United States. Scientists tell us that the P. dominula was not recorded in North America until 1981. P. dominula was first discovered in the United States in the late 1970s near Boston, Mass. This invasive species has since spread rapidly across the country. Entomologists worry that it is displacing the native species of Polistes wasps.
Have you ever seen these wasps attack other insects? Butterflies?
Last Sunday we were watching a crippled butterfly (no doubt crippled by a predator such as a bird or praying mantis) clinging to a Passiflora leaf as males tried unsuccessfully to mate with her. Eventually, the males all fluttered away and a European paper wasp patrolling the area zeroed in for the attack.
Like a hungry lion singling out a crippled gazelle from a stampeding herd, the European paper wasp knew just what to do.
Your mother laid an egg, you hatched into a caterpillar, and you're eating as much as you can before you spin into a chrysalis and then emerge, as a butterfly, ready to start the life cycle over again.
You are not aware of the European paper wasp, its long legs dangling, moving through the leaves and eating the newly laid eggs around you. The wasp lurks in the deep, dark shadows as you finish one bite and reach for another.
Then you see the predator coming after you.
It does not end well for you. You have become protein for the wasp to feed its young.
For several weeks now, the European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) have wreaked havoc on the Gulf Frit population on our Passiflora. Sometimes they pair up in twos, sometimes in threes and fours, and once a horde of five descended
They follow the fluttering butterflies as they touch down on a leaf to lay an egg. Then they eat the eggs, kill the caterpillars, and tear apart the chrysalids.
European paper wasps are relatively new invaders from Europe; they were first spotted in the United States in 1981 in Massachusetts. They are now colonizing the entire country, taking over the native wasps' territory.
There's good news and then there's bad news. If you like having European paper wasps around to prey on the larvae of hornworms, cabbageworms and tent caterpillars, then you may consider them beneficial insects. But if you're trying to rear a few butterflies, such as the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), then they're Public Enemy No. 1.
Studies show that they can also be cunning.
According to an article out of Michigan State University: "A Cornell University researcher has found that certain female wasps, without nests of their own, 'sit and wait' for an opportunity to adopt an orphaned nest or hijack a nest from another queen. These sit-and-wait female wasps prefer to adopt the most mature nests, probably because these nests will produce workers the soonest, and colonies with workers are very likely to survive. Once a queen adopts a nest she will eat the former queen's eggs and young larvae and replace them with her own eggs. The older larvae and pupae, which belonged to the former queen, are allowed to complete development and may eventually help rear the adopting female's offspring. Ferocious hunters, paper wasps feast on caterpillars."
"The nests are usually founded by a single Queen or Foundress, who starts her nest in May having hibernated as a mated queen throughout the winter often in the company of all the other mated females from their parental nest."
See photos of European paper wasps on BugGuide.net.
Meanwhile, we figure that only about 10 percent of the Gulf Frit eggs will ever make it into butterflies--no thanks to assorted predators.
But a few will make it, and what spectacular butterflies they will be!