There are so many fascinating stories about parasitic wasps that they have become a regular feature in this blog. Usually, their prey come off poorly in these tales, with caterpillars being reduced to little more than living, paralysed larders for macabre wasp grubs. But not always – some hosts don’t take the invasion of their bodies lying down. This post is an attempt to redress the balance between parasite and host, by telling the story of the caterpillar that fights back… with medicine.
One species of tiger moth, Grammia incorrupta, has a fuzzy caterpillar called the woolly bear. Like most other caterpillars, it’s exploited by several species of parasitoids including flies and wasps. If these body-snatchers lay their eggs inside a caterpillar, its menu changes and it develops a preference for a group of plant toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA).
These have no nutritional value and they clearly come at a cost, for woolly bears that eat a PA-rich diet grow more slowly than their peers. And yet, infected caterpillars gulp down these poisons by the leaf-ful. They are the medicine that the caterpillar uses to kill its unwanted hitchhikers.