This thing called life

This thing called life

Tipping the scales on Christmas Island: wasps and bugs use other species, so why can’t we?

These red and yellow blobs are yellow lac scale insects that feed crazy ants. A tiny wasp could reduce both populations. Parks Australia

A couple of days ago I published an article with Peter Green about the imminent release of a tiny wasp that will be used for biological control of a bug that feeds the crazy ants that kill red crabs on Christmas Island.

It is understandable that people are nervous about the introduction of exotic species to manage wildlife in a natural setting. It turns out that ecologists are even more nervous than the public about this, so if they have decided to do it anyway, then there is a remarkably good reason.

Parasitoid wasps use scale insects

The release of the wasp has concerned some readers because they imagine swarms of biting insects setting up their nests in the back garden. The truth is that the wasps that will be released are tiny and unlikely to be noticed at all.

First of all, Tachardiaephagus somervillei are only 2 mm long and cannot sting humans or other animals. They do not form colonies, they do not swarm, and they do not build nests. In fact, they won’t be at all interested in hanging around human habitations unless there is a tree nearby containing a colony of the yellow lac scale insect (Tachardina aurantiaca).

This is because these wasps are parasitoids – a type of parasitic organism that kills its host species. They don’t need a nest or a colony because the scale insects they target are both their food source and their home.

The specificity of the wasp for this particular type of scale insect can be seen in the first part of their Latin names: Tachardiaephagus literally means “eater of Tachardina”.

Scale insects use ants

Scale insects are a type of true bug (in the Order Hemiptera) that line up along tree branches like barnacles, sucking sap from the tree and in their mature form, releasing a sweet liquid known as honeydew from their backsides for the benefit of ants. They don’t do this for nothing. Their strategy is to use the ants as body guards.

In a situation where scale insects are relatively rare this increases the number of the ants who will in turn protect the scale insects. On Christmas Island, where the introduced yellow lac scale insects have become common because they do not have any natural predators, the invasive crazy ants have access to large quantities of honeydew. In this case, the crazy ants are using the yellow lac scale insects as a super abundant food source.

The super colonies that have formed as a result have instigated an environmental disaster. The crazy ants kill red crabs and other species mostly due to their extremely high densities driven by the abundance of honeydew.

Any detractors concerned about the dangers of yet another invasive species have not fully grasped the consequences of doing nothing. Chemical baiting of the ants is ongoing but has consequences for other animals and is not environmentally desirable or sustainable.

People using wasps

If the scale insects can use the ants as bodyguards and the ants can use the scale insects as a free food source, why can’t we use a tiny wasp as a biological control?

Unlike birds, lizards or other predators that may be deterred by ants crawling all over the scale insects, the tiny parasitoid wasps can slip through and lay their eggs in a scale insect without being noticed by the ants. Their eggs hatch and develop inside the scale insect, emerging as adult wasps that are ready to lay their eggs in another scale insect nearby.

In essence, the wasp uses the scale insect as a one-stop nursery, food source and conveniently located launching pad for the next generation. Inside a scale insect colony, they are likely to find another scale insect less than a centimetre from where they were born.

Consider how this will allow the wasp population to quickly grow and, perhaps, reduce the scale insect colony density so that the wasps will eventually have to fly further and further to find another scale insect. At some point the effort to find more scale insects will balance the benefit of finding an insect, and the two populations (wasp and scale insect) will reach a new equilibrium at a lower density.

How will the crazy ants respond?

The wasp will not run out of food, nor will the scale insects become extinct, but the ants will find themselves deprived of excess honeydew and will have to adjust their populations accordingly.

How do you empirically test the response of the ants to the removal of excess honeydew from their environment? Well, you can’t remove the scale insects but you can prevent the ants from getting into the trees where the scale insects live, even though it wasn’t easy. Apparently, doing this involves Glad wrap, Mr Sheen furniture polish, and daily vigilance by a research student.

The result was a 95% decrease in crazy ant activity in a few weeks, an outcome that suggests this approach has every chance of reducing the impacts of crazy ants on Christmas Island.

What happens next?

I understand that the team is gathering in Malaysia today to pack up some wasps and fly them to Christmas Island. The release will not happen right away, as the wasps will be acclimatised and grown up in large numbers in a dedicated facility. Monitoring programs are planned to observe the impacts, both short and long term, on the scale insects, the ants, the crabs and the forest structure.

The research to understand the ecology of Christmas Island sufficiently to identify a biological control agent started decades ago, and many scientists were involved along the way. It is not possible to provide links to all the research articles produced thus far, but here is a link to the final risk report.

I am not involved with the research but am familiar with it and in my view there are two things that could happen next. Either the wasp will fail to reduce the scale insect populations and nothing changes, or they will reduce the scale insect populations which could kick start a cascade of beneficial environmental outcomes for Christmas Island.

We are all really hoping that it is the latter.