Insect use stingers and other tricks of the trade

Published 12:00am Sunday, June 29, 2014

A week ago this afternoon I went into hiding. The plan was to not be seen until things got better. But a couple of buddies drove up the hill and I wasn’t going to be completely rude. So I showed my face and that was the part I was trying to hide. A bumblebee had completely uglified the left side from under the eye to well under the jaw.
He popped me in corner of the lip and the swelling went wild. Actually, the generic “he” we tend to use is wrong here. SHE stung me in the lip. All colonized bees except the few fertile drones are technically female, though only the queens have all the right parts to reproduce. The stinger on bees evolved from the ovipositor, which is a tube through which eggs are deposited by females of numerous insect species.
Way back eons ago, the ovipositor of some insect species both deposited eggs and injected a venom. That was a trick used by insects that laid their eggs inside the bodies of animals, including other insects. The venom was to paralyze the host victim and make it hold still while queenie put the eggs inside. And there still are bugs that do that to other bugs. But many parasitic egg-layers are considered beneficial because their victims are often plant-damaging insects. There is no prettier site than a green tomato hornworm barely moving with a bunch of tiny white gizmos stuck out its back. A week or so earlier a female tiny braconid wasp layed eggs inside the hornworm. The larva ate the worm’s guts and made their cocoons on the outside. Just like butterflies, adult braconids will emerge from the cocoons when the time is right.
The different groups of stinging bugs we deal with are in the Hymenoptera insect order. Over time, some quit laying eggs in live bodies and went to building nests and taking care of their babies themselves. But the venom and ovipositor became a defensive weapon. Slowly these critters developed into separate groups. One group is the Polistes that includes wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, mud daubers and others. All the bee species form another group. Ants make up another. Of course not all are venomous, but they do all have some form of ovipositor. And not all live in colonies with only queens being reproductive. The notorious carpenter bees live and bore nest sites as mated pairs. So does the largest and most fierce-looking of local Polistes, the non-aggressive cicada killer. It is mostly a gentle giant but just don’t go poking around its nest holes in the ground. Ditto for carpenter bees. You can get both species to sting.
There are a few species that both bite and sting. The venom is only in the stinger, but the pain comes from both ends. One such critter is the imported red fire ant. From its point of view, it bites merely to get a grip for a really good sting.

Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, 601-636-7679 ext. 3.

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