For my Masters Research Project (MRP) I am taking a look at righting and death-feigning among beetles, including a couple of ladybird species. I made the decision that I would try and work with natural populations wherever possible – the only problem with that, of course, is that nature can be the cruellest cohabiter.
Upon setting up a colony of seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), it quickly became apparent that I had a bit of an issue; namely finding quite a few specimens protectively guarding yellow cocoons. Doing such a good job of it, in fact, that it was almost impossible to remove them from both cocoon and plant. Dinocampus coccinellae had joined my project uninvited.
I was aware of possible parasitism of beetle juvenile stages, including those of ladybirds, but not the wasps with a penchant for taking on adults. Little did I know that this is the Braconid wasp D. Coccinellae’s stock-in-trade – and one that it’s building up such a reputation for its it’s started to become a minor mainstream news story. Indeed, once I was aware of it, I started to see ladybirds in their natural habitat sitting on cocoons seemingly everywhere, like some strangely beautiful horror movie in the undergrowth.
The parasitoid was first given a full biological description in 1926 after it was first noted in Europe, and since then, boy has it settled in.
One facet of the appeal of insects is a feeling that the aliens are among us already – and indeed parasitoids really did inspire that scene in the film Alien. With D. coccinellae, it is isn’t just about depositing an egg inside the ladybird and leaving its young to, all being well (from the wasp’s perspective of course), burst out of its host’s body an adult. It goes in for full-on control and manipulation, creating ‘zombies’ from ladybird hosts that guard a wasp cocoon spun between its legs by larvae after they’ve had their feeding fun. In its sensory-controlled state, the ladybird twitches to deter predators as the larvae pupates and hangs in there for adulthood. They do a fine ‘bodyguard’ job too, with studies showing only 15% survival against predators with host protection, and 65% with.
This may well be a problem of particular concern to the seven-spot ladybird, as research has shown that while it’s wily wasp enemy can decimate its populations, successful parasitism and emergence rates of the wasp are significantly lower when it makes an ovipositional attack on the invasive Harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, while the two-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata, is an unsuitable host altogether. To make matters much worse for C. septempunctata, it has been demonstrated that its toxic defence chemicals actually act as a considerable attractant to D. coccinellae. Bloody hell, nature.
It seems that a perfect storm is gathering, where a wasp, a highly-successful invasive competitor, a fairly narrow (and early in the year) breeding period and other environmental stressors are combining to make life extremely difficult for one of the UK’s classic ladybird species. Will it withstand the onslaught? Too early to tell – but there are certainly reasons for concern.
As for my experiment, maintenance of colony health since the first sightings has proved a game of watching intently for signs of parasitism, removing rapidly, rinsing and repeating. But stare into D. coccinellae’s intensely beautiful shiny green eyes under a microscope and you can’t help feeling this is an animal you’re never going to quite have the measure of. Allow me this excessive sweep of anthropomorphism: its gaze really does follow you around.
While my run-in with this small wasp has provided much by way of irritation, once you’ve taken a step back from your emotional response, it’s hard not to simply admire a highly-specialised species succeeding in its niche. That is, however, likely to be extremely cold comfort for those looking to conserve the UK’s native ladybirds.