Ask The Entomologist

Ichneumonid wasps, imposing allies

Last Thursday I saw this lovely Ichneumonid wasp (pronounced ICK-new-mon-id, from Greek “Ιχνευμων” which means “Tracker”). Most of the time I see Ichneumonids, they’re on the sides of trees, ovipositing (laying eggs) in boring insect larvae. This one’s behavior was very odd indeed.

An Ichneumonid wasp, Pimpla pedalis, oviposits into a newly split piece of Douglas Fir.

As you can see, this particular Ichneumonid wasp was laying her eggs inside a freshly split piece of Douglas Fir … or rather, inside a boring insect inside the Douglas Fir. Curious to see what insect she was laying her eggs inside, I peeled away layer after thin layer of wood …

Uncovering the beetle grub (at left, mid-height) the wasp laid her eggs in.

… And after an inch and a half of wood was removed, exposed a boring beetle grub. This is a Jewel Beetle grub, a member of family Buprestidae. These beetles can be lumber pests, though they’re unlikely to damage treated wood. While none of our Montanan Jewel Beetles are quite as bad, the Emerald Ash Borer has been devastating to ash trees throughout eastern North America.

There it is, a Buprestid beetle grub, just to the left of the burrow it gnawed in the wood.

I have very fond childhood memories of Giant Ichneumonid wasps. Most Sundays, my family would go to the arboretum of South Dakota State University’s then-public gardens. Among my favorite things there were some large multi-trunked cedars, which, in autumn, attracted some very large wasps. Presumably, the cedars also had very large wood-boring larvae that the Ichneumonids were parasitizing. Despite being a typical small human, making noise, climbing trees, and being generally bothersome, the Ichneumonid wasps never showed any sign of interest in me.

While their large stingers and stinger sheaths look quite formidable, Ichneumonid wasps very rarely sting mammals or other large animals. Unlike typical colony-living wasps and bees, Ichneumonid stingers are almost exclusively used for laying eggs inside of host insects. Eventually the eggs hatch, and the baby wasps eat the host insect from the inside out. Parasites that always kill their hosts are called parasitoids (think of the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies).

Fortunately for us, in addition to not stinging us or our pets, Ichneumonid wasps are also great at controlling garden pests. They take out a variety of garden pests (tomato hornworms, cabbage worms, etc.) as well as lumber pests (long-horned beetles, jewel beetles, bark beetles, etc.).

All in all, they’re neighbors I’m quite glad to have.