"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

September 20, 2022

Hymenoepimecis bicolor

Over the course of human history, numerous species of plants, animals, and other organisms have been taken from their original habitats and introduced (either intentionally or accidentally) to other parts of the world. Some of those introduced species become "invasives" in their new home, partly due to the lack of natural enemies. But while many invasive species get a brief moment of respite from their old adversaries, the local parasite and predators quickly catch on that the new arrival could be added to their menus too. This was the case for a species of spider that has been introduced to Brazil, where it ended up attracting the attention of a mind-controlling wasp.

Left top: Hymenoepimecis bicolor larva on a spider host, Left bottom: Developing H. bicolor cocoon in a cocoon web,
Right: an adult H. bicolor wasp.
Photo of H. bicolor larva from Fig. 2 of this paper, Photos of cocoon and adult H. bicolor from Fig. 7 and 9 of this paper

Hymenoepimecis bicolor is a species of parasitoid wasp that belongs to a subfamily of wasps called Pimplinae. All the members of that subfamily are a spider's worst nightmares. These wasps specialise in attacking spiders at every stage of their lives - some species go after the unhatched eggs in silk sacs, while others tackle fully-grown adult spiders. Not only that, some of them are also masterful mind manipulators that induce their host spider into spinning a special web called a "cocoon web" that secures the wasp's developing cocoon. And Hymenoepimecis bicolor just happens to be one such manipulator.

Among the pimpline wasps, each species have their own host preferences and in the case of H. bicolor, one of its usual hosts is the golden silk orb-weaver (Trichonephila clavipes), a spider which is native to Brazil. When a female H. bicolor spots a potential host, she flies in and grapples with it, immobilising the spider by stabbing it in the mouth with her ovipositor, before checking it for other wasp eggs, and then planting one of her own. The thing about the golden silk orb-weaver is that while the juvenile spiders are relatively easy for H. bicolor to handle, once the spiders reach adulthood, they become more dangerous for the wasp to tackle. 

Nevertheless, limited host availability means that the wasp sometimes need to go after the bigger spiders anyway, with demand being so high that some spiders end up being parasitised by two wasp larvae at the same time. But the arrival of the tropical tent-web spider (Cyrtophora citricola) has provided H. bicolor with some new options.

The tropical tent-web spider has spread to many parts of the world by hitchhiking in shipments of fruit, potted plants, or packing material, and it has made its way to South America about three decades ago. And it just so happens that their size and habits place them firmly in the sight of H. bicolor. Not only is the tent-web spider in the preferred size range for H. bicolor to parasitise, much like the native orb-weavers, this introduced spider constructs open webs that leave them exposed to attacks. Researchers found that the H. bicolor larvae are able to successfully parasitise the tent-web spider just as well as the native spiders.

While H. bicolor larvae grow well and pupate as usual on the tent-web spiders, it seems that they haven't yet achieved complete mastery over this new-fangled host. As mentioned earlier, when these wasps are ready to pupate, they commandeer their spider hosts to weave a special "cocoon web" that suspends the developing wasp cocoon in mid-air. This makes the cocoon less accessible to any would-be predators or hyperparasitoids. Hymenoepimecis  bicolor embellish that with an added layer of security, by inducing the spider to also build a series "barrier threads" around the cocoon that further bar entry, as well as making the web more stable

This is where the introduced spider host falls short. While the parasitised tent-web spider is able to produce the usual cocoon web with the necessary structure to support and suspend the developing cocoon, it lacks the finishing touches of those additional barrier threads. Ironically, compared with the spiders that H. bicolor usually targets, the regular webs made by the tent-web spider actually needs less modification to make it suitable for the wasp's cocoon.

Based on what's known about these wasps, when it is ready to pupate, the wasp larva produces a cocktail of chemicals that place the spider under its spell. But in this case, it looks like that cocktail formula needs a bit of tweaking to work its full magic on the introduced tent-web spider. While not perfect, it serves its purpose well enough, and the introduction of this spider has allowed a parasitoid wasp to expand its host horizons.


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