Sunday, November 23, 2014

Food Chain in the Milkweed Patch



Common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset
The common milkweed teems with life. Numerous insects feed on leaves, stems, and roots or sip nectar from their flowers. It is ironic that a plant so well protected by powerful toxins and sticky sap behaves like a magnet for a large assortment of creatures. The best known dependent of the common milkweed is the monarch butterfly, but there are many others that deserve our interest. Many species have found ways to overcome the defenses of this plant. They have developed resistance against the toxic cardenolides and methods to avoid the milky sap.

The herbivores are in turn eaten by other insects or spiders, which may fall prey to still other carnivores. It is worthwhile to examine one of these so called food chains or food webs.

Oleander aphids on common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset
One milkweed feeder, the oleander aphid, has become incredibly common in recent years. This bright yellow-orange aphid was accidentally introduced in this country with oleander plants, widely used in ornamental gardening. It established itself successfully and became adapted to milkweeds. It multiplies in huge numbers near the end of the season. It can do so because females reproduce parthenogenetically, that is without help from males.

Parasitized or mummified aphids. One wasp left the corpse through a round hole. © Beatriz Moisset
This aphid has few enemies. One of them is a tiny parasitic wasp. The mother wasp lays one egg inside a growing aphid and the larva completes its entire life cycle inside the unfortunate host. By the end of the aphid's life, it becomes dark, rounded and dried up. We call that a mummy. The fully grown wasp cuts out a round hole and emerges ready to start parasitizing other members of the aphid colony. It isn't easy to see the wasps, but almost every aphid colony has some of these mummified bodies. So you know that the parasitic wasps have been around.

Parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset

Lacewings, lady beetles and syrphid flies also feed on aphids. Their stories are worth telling but we'll let them be for now.

The food web does not end there. Not surprisingly, many predators visit the milkweed patch in search of animal food. Parasitic wasps seem to be a delicacy among some flies. I have found members of two different families of predatory flies dining on the wasps.

Robber fly (Taracticus octopunctatus) feeding on a parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset
One is a member of the family of robber flies, Asilidae. The name describes the members of this family well. They are seen pouncing mercilessly on their prey. One of them is Taracticus octopunctatus (no common name), a slender, hunchbacked fly with large eyes.
Long-legged fly feeding on a parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset
Another one is a longlegged fly, Condylostylus, a shiny metallic green fellow, with long skinny legs. Parasitic wasps are part of its menu.

I marvel about this food preference. Evidently, these flies look down on the most abundant food nearby, the aphids, and go for the far less common parasites. Perhaps, the latter have less cardenolides than the aphids and this is why the predatory flies prefer them as food.

Longlegged fly caught by a spider. © Beatriz Moisset
A second layer of predation is added to the one just described. A spider feeds on a longlegged fly. We can summarize this food chain this way:
Milkweedaphidparasitic wasppredatory flyspider

Will a bird sweep by and eat the spider? Will it in turn fall prey to a hawk or a snake? How many steps can be added to this food chain? Common milkweed feeds many members of the wild life directly and indirectly. The links of this food chain are numerous.

More on milkweed dependents and visitors

Monday, November 03, 2014

Wasps, Motherhood and Ultrasound

Female Pimpla wasp locating a moth pupa. © 2014 Beatriz Moisset

A slender wasp lands on a plant stem and starts gently tapping it with the tips of her thread-like long antennae. Tap-tap-tap, she goes up and down the stem. She may abandon her search and repeat the same process on another plant, and another. When she finally finds what she is looking for, the tapping becomes more pronounced and remains concentrated in a single spot. A Pimpla wasp is delicately built, glossy black with bright orange legs. Its body ends in a sword-like projection used for egg laying and called ovipositor. This is how we know she is a female. Her methodical activity is a preparation for motherhood.

At a hospital an expectant mother is having a sonogram of her fetus. The technician gets the equipment ready, applies gel to the mother's belly and runs a wand over it. The image of the baby inside the womb emerges in the monitor. The invisible becomes visible through the magic of ultrasound technology.

Ultrasound of a fetus. By Pacres. Flickr
These two unrelated events have something in common. The expectant wasp mother is also using ultrasound for the benefit of her progeny. The amazing thing is that she and her ancestors have been using this technology for millions of years. Even more amazing is that she carries all the needed equipment in her tiny body. One big difference is that she is not observing her unborn baby but locating the food her baby will need. Other wasps have an easier time. They hunt for caterpillars, which are relatively easy to find because they make noises when munching away. But a pupa remains perfectly still and requires special equipment to be detected.

The ultrasound equipment used to see a fetus inside the mother's womb consists of a machine that produces high-pitch vibrations, beyond human hearing, and a sensor, called a transducer, that collects and interprets the sounds bounced back from the mother's body, her placenta, and the little body curled up inside.

The Pimpla wasp vibrates her body in a special way, producing ultrasound waves which she transmits to the plant surface through her antennae. She absorbs the bounced back ultrasound through her legs where some tiny organs, called genua, collect information on the shape, size and location of its quarry. An image develops in her minuscule brain, an image similar to the ones we have all seen of unborn babies inside the womb. Now she knows exactly where to lay her egg.

Pimpla wasp, female. © 2014 Beatriz Moisset
She bends her abdomen and points the sharp ovipositor toward the hiding moth pupa. She inserts an egg on it and leaves. Her mission accomplished, she starts looking for other occult cocoons to lay more eggs on them.

We marvel about bats and dolphins using a similar process, echolocation. It is remarkable that a tiny insect can also use a version of this complicated technology.

List of articles
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

© Beatriz Moisset. 2014