"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

November 14, 2023

Stylops ater

Strepisptera is an order of parasitic insects with some very unique characteristics.They are also known as twisted wing parasites, based on the twisted hindwings on the male parasite. They infect many different orders of insects, but mostly target wasps and bees where they up take up residency in the host's abdomen. If you know what to look for, you can immediately spot their presence. In fact, there's even a special term for describing bees and wasps that are parasitised - they get "stylopized".

Top: A male Stylops ater (indicated by red arrow) attempting to mate with a female in a bee's abdomen.
Bottom left: Female Stylops ater adult (indicated by red arrow) in a bee's abdomen,
Bottom right: Male Stylops ater pupa casing (indicated by red arrow) in a bee's abdomen. 
From Fig. 1 of the paper

And it's not just the hindwings of stresipterans that are a bit twisted, these insects have extreme sexual dimorphism, so much so that if you didn't know any better, you'd think the females and males are completely different types of animals. The female stresipteran looks like a grub, and she spends her entire life inside the abdomen of the host, with just her head partially poking out from between the segments of the host's abdomen.

In contrast, the males have a pair of giant compound eyes, prominent branched antennae and the "twisted wings" that give this group of insects its name. They have a short and frantic adulthood - after emerging from the host, he only lives for a few hours and his sole mission in life is to find and mate with an elusive female strepisteran, hidden away in the abdomen of a host insect. And he does the deed with an appendage that entomologist Tom Houslay once vividly called a "stabby cock dagger". The technical term for this form of mating is "hypodermic insemination" - where the male basically stabs and inject his sperm into the female, and the sperm somehow find their way to the eggs. Strespiterans are not alone in having this type of appendage, male bed bugs also have a stabby cock dagger - but that's another story.

The study being featured in this post focuses on Stylops ater, a species which parasitises Andrena vaga, the grey-backed mining bee. Unlike the honeybees that most people are familiar with, these are solitary bees, with no castes. And while they do gather into an aggregation to nest, each bee just builds and looks after their own nest. The researchers examined a population of these bees in Lower Saxony, Germany. They sampled over two periods, during late winter, when all 508 bees they looked at were stylopized, and late spring, when they only managed to find two stylopized bees out of a total of 150.

Almost two-third of the stylopized bees were female, but these parasites seem to prefer hosts that are of the same sex as themselves. Since female bees live longer and can provide more nutrients than male bees, this works out well for the life history of female Stylops as it gives them more time and nutrients to grow her brood. After mating, the female Stylops can release up to 7000 offspring, which crawl off to find other bees. While each larva is merely 0.2 millimetre long, they can traverse long distances by hitching a ride on the hair, pollen sacks, or even the crop of bees, to end up in a new bee nest, filled with fresh hosts.

While most bees only hosted a single parasite, some had two or three, and the researchers did find one very unlucky bee that was harbouring four Stylops in its abdomen. But even a single Stylops can take a severe toll on its host. In fact, this parasite is so demanding that it wouldn't grow as big if it had to share its host with another Stylops. As a result, bees infected with Stylops are unable to develop eggs or only produce poorly developed eggs.

But aside from effectively sterilising the bee, Stylops also tinkers its host's biological clock, making it emerge out of hibernation a few weeks earlier than uninfected bees - hence why the researchers found so many stylopized bees in late winter. Making the bees such early risers ensures that there will be plenty of female Stylops around for the male Stylops to find, which will be emerging at that time to live out their extremely short lives. It also gives the female Stylops' larvae more time to develop, so they will be able to crawl off in time to find new hosts in the bee's brood cells. This type of behaviour manipulation is comparable to what's found in Sphaerularia vespae, a nematode that alters the seasonal biological clock of hornet queens.

In order to make these changes to the bee's internal clock, Stylops would have to manipulate the host's hormones, but this also results in some side effects on the bee's body. Female bees that get stylopized tend to have a hairier back, skinnier legs, and the hairs on said legs become shorter and more sparse. In short, they take on characteristics that are more similar to that of regular male bees.

So next time you are out and about, keep an eye out for a bee that looks a bit different from the rest. It might be flying under the influence of a parasite tucked away in its abdomen, looking to make a rendezvous with her short-lived partner.