But I got a reminder today that it could be much, much worse. I was out at the Natural Area Teaching Lab at the University of Florida hunting for good caterpillar and butterfly photos and saw something large and strange trundling along the top of a fence. When I went to investigate, I understood why it looked so strange. It was a Pine Sphinx Moth caterpillar, almost unrecognizable under the bulk of scores of Braconid Wasp cocoons. Fully grown, a Pine Sphinx Moth caterpillar will be the size of my pointer finger. They are pretty cool looking, with long white/yellow stripes, white speckles and large black ringed spiracles (breathing holes) along their sides. This one had been parasitized by a Brachonid Wasp. Braconids lay their eggs inside their hosts. In this case, just under the skin of the large caterpillar. The eggs hatch and the larvae eat the caterpillar from the inside but don't kill it right away. The caterpillar is dying slowly and probably doesn't know it. When the wasp larvae have matured, they bore holes through the caterpillar's skin and make a cocoon. They pupate as they ride around on the caterpillar. Then the wasps emerge as adults and the caterpillar dies soon after. Kind of a horrible way to go, I think. Gardeners and farmers use Braconid Wasps as biological pest control agents in organic gardens. Caterpillars are major crop pests--think tomato horn worms, for example. I guess it's better than pesticides, but it's no fun for the caterpillar. On the other hand, it's great for the wasps.
|Pine Sphinx Moth with Brachonid Wasp Cocoons|