Parasitoids

English Original

„Is this dictating app working? There’s a green light, so I guess it’s on. Well then, let’s begin.“

A throat clearing.

„My name is Balthasar Sting. I’m professor of entomology, which means I study insects. In specific, the Braconidae family, tiny wasps not bigger than a comma. Crazy scientist, you might think.“

Somewhere distant, a staccato rattle can be heard, a well as a deep rumble.

 

Sting raises his voice, his tone indignant: „For heaven’s sake, give up. You won’t get in here in time, anyway.“

And more conversational again: „Where was I? Ah, yes. Braconidae. The most fascinating group of organisms on earth, I dare say. Right out there in your backyard. Turn the leaves of the weed growing there and you might happen on an insect idyll underneath: a pastel green caterpillar, slightly obese, curled protectively around a clutch of orange cocoons. If you approach your finger, the caterpillar rears on its hind legs and lashes out, trying to headbutt your finger. A mother, fiercely defending her babies, you think. Think again.“ A pause. „Thinking of which… Have to look after my own offspring. Be right back with you.“

A rustling sound, the shuffling of house shoes over rough flooring. After a while, Sting’s voice is back. „Everybody’s fine. To continue. Rewind your idyll a few weeks and you’ll find the same caterpillar, minus the brood, munching away at the leaf. I’ll skip the primary school bit, you know, caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. But allow me a short digression into insect embryology. During metamorphosis inside the cocoon, caterpillar tissue is broken down, except for the imaginal discs from which the butterfly is built. Remember: imaginal discs. So far so good.“

A few more muffled explosions can be heard.

„Those bloody idiots. Forgive my language. Let’s just ignore them and return to our caterpillar. One day, a shiny blue metallic wasp of the genus Glyptapanteles lands on the caterpillar, their size difference like a hawk to an airliner. The wasp stings the caterpillar, its venom paralyses it, but only for a few minutes. Enough time for the wasp to inject a cocktail of a virus and about 80 of its eggs from which larvae will hatch, behind enemy lines, so to say. When the caterpillar wakes, it continues munching away at his leaves, blissfully unaware of what is happening inside it. The virus, like any elite commando troop, proceeds to knock out the caterpillar’s defences. Forgive me for using military terms, but they seem quite appropriate, especially with this constant barrage that you’re hearing outside.

Inside the caterpillar, the wasp larvae start to gorge themselves on its blood. The virus, in the meantime, advances to the caterpillar’s brain and forces it to raise blood sugar so the wasp grubs can grow faster. Almost everything the caterpillar eats is now channeled off and turned into wasp larvae body mass. They not only drink his blood, but begin consuming all the caterpillar’s organs that are not needed for immediate survival. They gobble up his imaginal discs, effectively robbing him of his butterfly future. If you look closely at this stage, you can see the wasp larvae wiggling inside a grotesquely swollen caterpillar. The waspish invasion force has taken over their host, body and soul.

When the wasp larvae have grown enough for their next stage of development, they flood the caterpillar a second time with paralysing venom. While he is unable to move, the wasp grubs bite their way out through his thick skin to leave the surrogate womb that has protected and nourished them. Close to the caterpillar, the wasp larvae start to spin their orange silk cocoons. A few of them, though, remain inside the caterpillar. This stay-behind-group takes over his controls. They use the wounded caterpillar to defend the brood, like a giant tank, until their siblings emerge from their cocoons and fly off on search of new caterpillar hosts. Only then, the caterpillar, no more than an empty shell, is left to die, together with the few wasp larvae who have sacrificed themselves for their siblings. That’s the story of the Braconidae wasps and the caterpillar. Quite an insect idyll, don’t you think? Let me check on my children quickly and I’ll be right back to tell you the rest of the story.”

A scuffle, a tapping sound, then the voice of Sting is back.

„Back to me and the Braconidae. All over the world, I studied these wasps and their viruses that help them invade caterpillars. One species is even named after me, Glyptapanteles balthasarii. A remarkable species I found living at the banks of the Prypjat river, north of Kiew. It’s most stunning characteristic is its size. All other Braconidae are less than 3mm in body length, but Glyptapanteles balthasarii grows to the size of a hornet queen. Generally, braconid stings are too small to penetrate human skin. While observing Glyptapanteles balthasarii, however, I was stung the first time in my life. I must confess it hurt like hell and I even lost consciousness for a short time because of the pain. Shortly after that, my eating binges started, my weight and my blood sugar rose and my testicles shriveled. I also got the urge to buy this bunker and stockpile explosives. I just knew I needed to do that. I didn’t know what was happening to me until I went to see my doctor because of abdominal pain. After palpating the lumps in my belly that he thought might be tumours, he sent me for an MRI. While he puzzled over the gherkin-shaped abscesses that filled my abdomen, I suddenly knew.

I retreated to my bunker, blew up all access tunnels, stopped eating and waited. Somehow my MRI pictures must have been passed around, and someone, maybe back at the Ukraine, must have made the connection between the hollowed out livestock carcasses they’d found there for years next to coconut-sized, empty husks. This is probably why they are now trying to blow their way in to get to the cocoons I’ve been tending to in the last month, after the Glyptapanteles balthasarii larvae have gnawed their way out of my body.

With all their explosives, though, they won’t get in here until all my precious babies have hatched. With pride and wonder I watch as the first one crawls out of its chrysalis. It sits there, antennae quivering, pumping blood into its delicate wings to straighten them before they harden in the air. The metallic blue of its body shines in the glow of my lamp. It looks at me from a thousand glittering eyes. It is even bigger than its mother, I realize now. Evolution still in action.

I am very tired now, spent. I haven’t eaten for a month, but I gorge my eyes at the sight of these marvellous creatures who carry my name and my scientific legacy, if not so my genes. They fly off through the air vent, the only way out of this bunker, in search of new, human hosts. Forget Alien. Here come Glyptapanteles balthasarii, the Braconid answer to Chernobyl. I die gladly, having witnessed this wonder of evolution and entomology!“

Here, the app only records ever closer explosions, then it stops for good.