Five Real Life Wasp Superpowers Not in Ant-Man and the Wasp

Bees tend to get all the attention, but Marvel turns the spotlight on one of nature’s most devious masterminds

Even outside of Hollywood, wasps are fierce contenders in their own right. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

Wasps are not typically thought of as heroes—if anything, they’re antiheroes. Equipped with sharp stingers, menacing drones and a penchant for sugar, these formidable insects provoke the ire of picnic-goers the world over. Fortunately for wasps, however, Marvel has a reputation for empowering creepy-crawly underdogs (see: Spider-Man). With Ant-Man and the Wasp, which premieres on July 6, the world is already abuzz with fervor for the next superhero installment.

But while Ant-Man’s Wasp hits the big screen with a veritable arsenal of crime-fighting abilities (Suits that shrink the people inside them! Exponentially superhuman strength! Aerodynamic bursts of flight!), the real wasps that plague our backyard barbecues boast their own set of superpowers that make them a force to be reckoned with. We’re here to convince you that maybe, just maybe, you should let a wasp be your hero today.

1. Vigilante justice

Humans may prickle with annoyance at the sight of a wasp, but it’s actually other insects that have the most to fear. Wasps are notorious predators of agricultural pests, including whiteflies, aphids, moths, beetles and plant lice. In fact, scientists have been using wasps as a method of biological pest control for nearly a century, and several programs have been instituted in recent years. In the 1980s, wasps were responsible for rescuing $2 billion of agricultural profits in Africa from a scourge of cassava mealybugs.

In most cases, wasps target these pests through parasitism. Thousands of species of parasitoid wasps exist, each with their own favorite target—and their own skin-crawling techniques. When female parasitoid wasps are ready to lay their eggs, they find an unsuspecting insect of choice and deposit the eggs inside or on its body. Trichogramma wasps, for instance, insert their eggs into the eggs of moths. Then, like Russian nesting dolls of nightmares, the wasp larvae hatch within the moth eggs and devour their contents.

“Being parasitic is probably the single most successful lifestyle on earth,” says Lynn Kimsey, an entomologist at the University of California at Davis. “Someone else does all the work for you—all you have to do is get in there.”

2. Unappreciated pollinators

Wasps also provide a more direct (and significantly less macabre) benefit to crops: like bees, they’re important pollinators that help plants propagate. Even ghoulish parasitoid wasps grow out of their taste for insect flesh: after the carnivorous larval stage, adults may switch to living off nectar and passing pollen between plants, says Elizabeth Murray, an entomologist at Cornell University. While much of this seed-spreading is probably incidental, a few agricultural mainstays rely heavily on wasps—including figs and orchids.

Figs share a particularly intimate relationship with wasps, with whom they are entirely codependent. Because fig plants produce fruit year-round—and thus nourish surrounding animals throughout the year—their partner wasps are important cornerstones of many ecosystems.

In exchange for their seed-spreading services, female wasps are welcomed into fig flowers as a haven in which they can sexually mature. Male wasps will sometimes crawl up to floral pouches containing adolescent females and bore tiny holes into which they will stick their “impressive telescopic genitalia” to inseminate the females. Now impregnated, the female will use the male’s glory hole as an escape route so she can find another plant in which she will deposit pollen and lay eggs. Who says chivalry is dead?

fig wasp ovipositor
Wasps enjoy very intimate relationships with figs. Female fig wasps sexually mature in flowers, waiting for males with gargantuan ovipositors to inseminate them. (Sergio Jansen Gonzalez / flickr)

3. They melt in your mind, not in your hand

Every superpowered hero (or villain) has a secret weapon. For parasitoid wasps, it’s venom. Potent and enigmatic, wasp venom can exert pretty wonky effects on its targets.

For instance, one species of wasp targets orb-weaving spiders. Female wasps of this variety have one goal in mind: free childcare. They will ensnare spiders in the briefest of encounters—just enough time to affix an egg to their abdomen. Flustered but feeling mostly unscathed, the spider will breathe a sigh of relief and resume its daily routine … until the egg hatches. The newborn larvae will immediately inject a toxin into the spider that hijacks its nervous system, forcing it to construct a uniquely wasp-worthy web on which the larva will suspend a cocoon. Swaddled in its silky new garb, the larva will then gobble up the zombified spider.

It gets worse. For anyone who had despaired the indestructible nature of cockroaches, they need only enlist the help of a jewel wasp. These devious little specimens deliver a rapid one-two punch to their victims: first, an immobilizing paralytic to the abdomen, then a second sting into its neck that targets the roach brain. The wasp then wanders off to browse nearby real estate for a suitable burrow, while the cockroach remains rooted in place, engaged in a strange ritual of frenetic preening.

About half an hour later, the wasp returns, snaps off the cockroach’s antennae, and treats herself to the hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) that oozes out of the stubs. Under the influence of the zombifying venom, the cockroach will then allow itself to be led to the wasp’s hovel like a leashed canine and entombed within—but not before the wasp leaves it with one final gift: an egg glued onto one of the cockroach’s legs. The hatched larva will then consume the cockroach from the inside out until nothing is left but a hollow, rattling shell, out from which a fully-grown wasp will eventually emerge. Shudder.

4. Wasp-Woman and the Ant?

It’s fitting that Marvel’s Wasp is a female superheroine, as wasps, bees, and ants tend to live in matriarchies (that being said, it should really be Ant-Woman and the Wasp, but that’s an article for another time).

While most wasps are solitary, at least 900 species are considered “social” wasps that live in colonies headed by large queens. The details differ from species to species, but in general, wasp colonies are structured into castes of female workers, who provide all facets of labor from caring for young to foraging for food. Males are born with neither stingers nor an instinct for the hunt, making them essentially mobile sources of sperm.

A highly skewed gender ratio in wasps favors females, who make up the workforce of the colony. Wasps are among several creatures that can produce offspring from unfertilized eggs, which all hatch into males. Fertilized eggs, on the other hand, all enter the world as females. In this strange world, males are fatherless and sire no sons.

This system facilitates an especially high degree of relatedness between females: if a queen chooses a single mate, her daughters share 75 percent of their genes with each other because they each inherit the full set of their father’s genes, rather than just half. But like humans, mothers and daughters still share only 50 percent of their genes. This means that, from an evolutionary standpoint, “it’s actually more beneficial for wasps to protect their sisters than to produce daughters,” says Bernardo Santos, an entomologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In other words, the community is engineered to incentivize cooperation.

Hives of social wasps are led by queens that rule over a legion of mostly female workers. Sisters are more related to each other than mothers are to daughters, facilitating cooperation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every spring, queens must forge new colonies of 5,000 wasps from scratch. Most wasps die of starvation over the winter months, with only a few females—hopeful queens-to-be—hunkering down to wait out the cold. A surviving female will emerge in the spring, break her fast, and immediately begin to nest in preparation for her new colony. What has survived the winter with her is a cache of last season’s sperm, donated by one or several males, which the new queen can dip into as she chooses to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs.

If just one male donates, “it’s as if you have a monogamous couple,” explains entomologist Ted Schultz, curator of ants at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “It’s just, the male is dead.”

But even this queen’s tenure is brief: at summer's end, she will perish with almost all her workers, leaving room for a daughter to take up the mantle next. If it were up to wasps, Rome could have certainly been built in a day, thanks to a single industrious Cleopatra.

5. All’s fair in wasps and war

Wasps may be fierce warriors in their own right, but they can also be the secret to winning a human war. There are legends of armies deploying them as weapons: Soldiers in Alexander the Great’s Siege on Tyre in 332 BC are said to have resorted to catapulting hornet’s nests at enemy ships.

Unlike honeybee workers, which are infamously capable of stinging only once before they die, wasps (and most other bees, for that matter) will engage in repetitive sharp-shooting of excruciating venom if given good reason. And being flung headlong onto a ship deck that smashes your lifelong home to smithereens is certainly motivation enough: as the tale goes, the swarming hordes helped clear the way for the Macedonians to bring their boats ashore.

In modern times, scientists have experimented with training wasps and bees to sniff out explosives and contraband as a more cost-effective alternative to dogs. In as little as five minutes, wasps can be taught to associate odors of interest, such as chemicals commonly found in explosives, with a food-based reward. They are then placed in a simple device called a “Wasp Hound”—essentially a closed-off pipe with a single inlet for smells to enter and a camera that can monitor the activity of five wasps enclosed within.

If the wasps encounter a scent they associate with a reward, they will eagerly congregate around the inlet in the hopes of receiving a treat. A computer monitoring images sent from the camera will sound off an alarm if it detects the bees fussing.

Though we’re still far from encountering wasps at airport security checkpoints, research continues, and the scientists behind the project are hopeful that these insects, along with their bee brethren, will someday aid in the detection of drugs, weapons, and even diseases that produce distinct chemical signatures.

From puppeteering other insects to sacrificing for their sisters, wasps exhibit some of the most striking behavioral diversity in the animal kingdom. The 75,000 species described so far are likely just the tip of the stinger; wasps may yet prove to be the most varied group of animals on the planet. Love them or hate them, fear them or revere them—but acknowledge that the humble wasp is just as mighty as she looks.

“I’m glad they’re coming out with [Ant-Man and the Wasp], but there are things in nature that no fiction writer would ever come up with,” says Schultz. “Real life is definitely just as amazing, if not more amazing, than fiction.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus