Darwin’s Classic Monster: The Parasitoid Wasp


Image: Franz Vanoosthuyse/MOTHERBOARD
Have you been watching Fortitude? Probably not, huh. Despite being the best thing on TV this past winter/spring, the show hasn’t gotten a whole lot of public appreciation/fanfare. It’s among the the more uniquely creepy not-quite science-fictions I can remember and its frozen-over horror comes courtesy of one of nature’s very real demons. While the Walking Dead chases after zombie mythology and metaphor, Fortitude goes straight to the real fucking walking dead, which exist in nature courtesy of what can only be described as actual monsters:parasitoid wasps.


By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

In fairness, nature has a whole lot of genuine monsters: ​zombie ant fungus, ​ticks, hookworms, fire ants. I could go on. But only one of those monsters was sufficiently horrid enough for Charles Darwin to find it as evidence against the existence of god (well that and cats playing with mice, but wasps have grotesquerie going for them). This is Darwin’s almost-full quote regarding the conflict between divinity and waspery, from ​a letter written to the pioneering botanist Asa Gray:

With respect to the theological view of the question: This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars …

So, yes, that’s the business of a parasitic wasp, which is actually a large collection of wasp families with somewhat different behaviors and preying on somewhat different victims (though all of them insects … so far). An adult female wasp will lay her eggs within a host through a process known as ovipositing. This will be done via her ovipositor, which is, yes, her stinger. The eggs will grow and develop into larvae, which will feed on their host from the inside-out. Somewhere along the way the host will actually die or be kept in a state very near death until, finally, the little wasp spins a cocoon around and-or within its host, eventually emerging as a proper, normal-seeming wasp.

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