In honor of it being that spooky, creepy-crawly time of year, when our nightmares come to life and scenarios from only the scariest of horror movies are set up all over town in the form of haunted houses, I thought it would be fun to gross you out a little and tell you all about the haunted house you have right in your own backyard. Be glad you’re not insect-sized, or you’d be hiding under your tiny bed!
The insect world is full of all kinds of characters that are perfect for Halloween. One particularly yucky group are called parasites. Just the mention of the name grosses me out! There are all different kinds of parasites- some just quietly live off of their host, some are able to manipulate their hosts’ behaviors, and some will even eventually kill their host when they are no longer needed.
If you have a vegetable garden, or are growing tomato plants, you have probably seen a tomato hornworm. These large, fat, bright green caterpillars with a curved horn on their rear are a common pest that will eat all of the leaves off of your tomato plants, reducing them to stubs in a day. While they may be annoying, they do also serve a purpose in the web of life, as one of the favorite hosts for a kind of parasitic wasp. Parasitic wasps are tiny, beneficial predators that help to naturally control the populations of pest species that would otherwise destroy your plants or require endless spraying with insecticides. They target aphids, webworms, tent caterpillars, grubs, borers, mealy bugs, and many other pests. Parasitic wasps are common everywhere, but are generally so small, quiet and mild-mannered, you’ve probably never noticed them. In the case of the hornworm, they’re not so nice and gentle. (que ominous laughter)Hornworms play an important role in the completion of the life cycle of the parasitic wasps. A female wasp will find a young unsuspecting hornworm caterpillar and inject her eggs just under its skin. When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae begin feeding on the insides of the caterpillar. They will eat until they can literally chew themselves out of the caterpillar’s skin. Yuck! At this point, the wasps make tiny white egg-shaped cocoons all over the surface of the still barely alive caterpillar and will emerge soon after as more adult wasps ready to search for their next victims. Their existing caterpillar host will die soon after they emerge, typically from loss of internal organs…
Another creepy and interesting group of insects you can commonly find in your own backyard are assassin bugs. These are another beneficial group you should welcome with open arms- unless you’re a fly, caterpillar, or other kind of bug! Assassin bugs get their name because of the way they kill their prey. They are built with some pretty crazy accessories. When they find a bug they’d like to eat, they impale it with their medieval sword-like mouthpart. They then inject their prey with a chemical that temporarily paralyzes while also liquefying its insides. These creepy killers then slurp out their liquid meal, leaving nothing but an empty shell behind. Some super-barbaric assassin bugs will even take it a step further and throw the empty carcass up on their back and glue it into place to wear as its own tiny Halloween costume. Some of these guys have been seen carrying around huge piles of glued on dead bug victims. Pretty creepy and disgusting if you ask me….and perfect for Halloween!
Insects like these prove that you just never know what you will find when you enter the insect realm, or what might be lurking just outside your door right now!
Interested in a little more scary insect information? Come see me this Saturday at Enchanted Forest from 10am-noon and Enchanted Gardens from 2pm-4pm. I will have my collection of live hissing cockroaches, millipedes, Peter Parker the tarantula, and Pickle the whiptail scorpion. Pose for a picture with a roach or touch a millipede if you’re feeling brave! Leave sporting a new (temporary) bug tattoo and be sure to enter our contest for a great prize. In keeping with the bug theme, we’ll be featuring some great Lady Bug brand products with some fun freebies and giveaways! There will also be a few other creepy surprises in store that you will just have to come see to believe! See ya’ll Saturday!