The good, the bad, and the downright nauseatingly disgusting

The 2015 Nunhead Cemetery Open Day Bug Hunt has just been and gone and, as ever, one of my main tactics to enthuse children is to emphasize the grim, gory and gruesome nature of insect biology. The more disgustingly yucky the better. Dung flies are always good — they eat what? I was bitten by 20 centipedes (venomous front legs) and half-a-dozen spiders (“can you see how her fangs are stuck in my skin”). We had predatory ground beetles ready to rip apart some unfortunately prey, a hoverfly larva ready to suck an aphid’s innards out, and a lesser stag beetle grub that defaecated right on cue. But it was the parasitic wasp pupa under the ladybird that really caused a stir.

“What’s this ladybird cuddling?”

I was quite excited about this one. The idea of one animal living inside another, and eating it alive from the inside, is definitely the stuff of nightmares. No prizes for guessing where Ridley Scott got the idea for Alien.

We’d already had a couple of parasitoid wasps brought to the bug hunt stall, one with long thin ovipositor, prefect for penetrating deep into the succulent flesh of a caterpillar to lay its eggs. My description got some grimaces, but any disgust was mild, and tinged (as I had planned) with a certain amount of wonder at nature’s inventiveness. No so for Dinocampus coccinellinae, the ladybird killer.

For one thing the ladybird was not dead. It had not been allowed to die. Instead, as the maggot gnawing at its internal organs had grown to maturity, its host had continued to move about and feed, constantly supplying the hungry inner passenger with fresh food. Eventually the parasitic grub had burrowed out through the beetle’s belly to spin a cocoon in which to pupate, but still the live ladybird was in its thrall, gripping involuntarily to the leaf as a protective dome.

Hypothetical caterpillars might be one thing, but here was a helpful ‘friendly’ creature from the garden, the lead character in many a children’s book, a fashionably familiar design on back-packs, clothes, bedding, jewellery, drinking bottles, kitchen timers, hair accessories and novelty chocolates. And here it was, being tormented before our very eyes.

It was at this point that someone asked if this was one of the ‘bad’ ladybirds. Since it was first found in Essex in 2004, the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, has been a popular tabloid focus for biological woe, with all manner of garbled non-science about its tendency to out-compete native ladybird species, and even eat them, along with lots of other ‘good’ insects like lacewing and hoverfly larvae. I suspect he was after an answer something along the lines of: “Yes, this is one of those evil foreign bugs, good thing it’s going to die, you should squish any you come across too.” I don’t think he was very impressed by my short lecture on how the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ animals is nonsense to a biologist, and just the artificial construct of an ill-informed sentimental society which has lost touch with nature in all its struggle for survival — disease, decay and death.

It was at this point I realized I might be losing my audience. Perhaps I was being rather too objectively rational, and just a tad overenthusiastic about the detailed mechanics of ladybird parasitism.

Ah well, I made a slight recovery by going on to explain how the harlequin had so explosively invaded Britain, and how this common ladybird parasitoid had only recently started to increase its attacks on the alien beetle, as it became evolutionarily more familiar with the harlequin’s tree- and shrub-dwelling habits, rather than the herbage-inhabiting behaviour of the 7-spot. Anyway, the captor was suitably impressed that I wanted to keep his find, to photograph and rear the parasitoid through.

Secretly, though, I think we need to try and raise the popular understanding of some of the more awkward biological concepts — murder, incest, slavery, gender inequality, caste systems, cannibalism, and being eaten alive from the inside. I realize this is something of a challenge.

4 responses to “The good, the bad, and the downright nauseatingly disgusting

  1. It’s always quite amusing explaining to people that there are no “bad” or “good” species – it’s just nature!

  2. Richard, I always get your posts come in my email so enjoy reading them. I ‘think’ I may have left one comment long time back but not sure. With this comment of mine, I have a number of questions and observations that I very much hope you see and answer. Please? I’ll number the ones I hope to get an answer from you to make it easier to keep track.

    1. How many girls participate in your bug hunts? Or is it mainly boys? And if there are quite a few girls, do they get turned off by the ‘yucky’ descriptions or are they just as enthralled as boys are?

    2. Don’t the children get equally horrified at the wasp’s eggs hatching inside the caterpillar as they are regarding the ladybird’s parasite? Or perhaps there’s little sympathy towards caterpillars as there is for friendly ‘cute’ ladybirds?

    I’m hoping your answer to questions #1 is there are lots of girls. As a grown woman, I feel sad that none of my female friends are as enthusiastic or even vaguely interested in bugs (using that word to encompass spiders and anything else remote similar). Actually only a couple of male friends are interested in bugs and none to the extent I am either. :( I’m guessing it’s because what’s disgusting to others has always interested me even as a small child. Perhaps it’s innate!

    But I’ve made great efforts to try to interest others, especially other women, in the wonders of bugs by trying to show them the beauty in this tiny world …so on to my next question.

    3. Have you found as much interest in children if you’ve shown them the beauty in bugs? I’m meaning things like the remarkable patterns on some beetles’ elytra, dew covered spider webs, furry moths, butterflies, iridescent beetles and so on? Or do boys them lose interest when you do?

    Hope you don’t mind my questions. I wouldn’t say I love bugs more than I do other animals such as elephants, Pallas cats, raccoons, otters, etc. But I admit I’m often much more fascinated with them which fuels my enthusiasm for all things buggy. BTW, have you seen Jürgen Otto’s videos on YouTube of his dancing peacock spiders? If not, I highly recommend them. He’s a biologist studying and discovering new peacock jumping spiders in Australia.


  3. Richard Jones

    There are plenty of girls as well as boys at the bug-hunt, and although I’ve not made any count, I’d say the numbers were pretty even. These are mostly kids aged up to about 12 or 13, so perhaps gender stereotypes have not quite kicked in yet.
    I think it was the fact that the parasitoid was there to see, and the host was still alive that caused the consternation, but it was mainly to the adults present. Although the children may pull a face at a spider biting me, they are still curious enough to be enthralled and fascinated, as well as repulsed.
    Having said that the pretty insects get the same fascination. Saturday produced many cardinal beetles, Pyrochroa species, bright red things that flew off over everyone’s heads. Velvet mites got a bit of gentle cooing over too.

  4. Pingback: The horror has emerged, and it’s quite pretty really | Bugman Jones

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