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Butterflies - Parasitic Enemies

( Originally Published 1917 )

All three of the earlier stages of butterflies egg, larva, and chrysalis are subject to attack by various parasitic insects which develop at the expense of the host. Such parasites are probably the most important check upon the increase of butterflies, and along with birds, mammals, and bacterial diseases, they help to keep up that balance of nature which in the long run maintains a surprising uni formity in the numbers of each kind of butterfly. For the most part these insect parasites are small four winged flies, although many of them are two-winged flies. In either case the life stages show a series of changes much like those of the butterflies themselves. Each parasite exists first as an egg, second as a larva, third as a pupa, and fourth as an adult fly. The larval stage, however, is imply that of a footless grub which lives within the body of its victim absorbing its life blood and gradually killing it.

The parasites of butterfly eggs are legion. They are tiny flies whose life-story in briefest summary is this : The butterfly lays an egg. The parasite fly finds this egg soon after it is laid, and pierces the shell with her tiny, sharply pointed ovipositor and deposits inside of the shell her own microscopic egg. This egg within the egg soon hatches into a curious little larva that develops at the expense of the contents of the butterfly egg shell, and soon absorbs the whole of them. The parasite larva now changes to a pupa which a little later changes again to an adult fly like the one that laid the parasite egg in the beginning. Of course the butterfly egg never hatches into a caterpillar.

One of the most interesting questions in regard to these egg parasites is this: How does the tiny parasitic fly find the newly laid egg? One would think that the proverbial search for a needle in a haymow would be an easy task compared with that of a fly about as large as the head of a pin finding a butterfly egg of similar size upon some part of one of the millions of leaves upon the trees and shrubs in field and forest. Yet the search is successful, as every one who has tried to get caterpillars from eggs found out of doors will testify. On a later page in this book, in connection with the story of the life of the Mourning Cloak butterfly, I have recorded some observations upon the little which seemed to have been riding around upon the body of the butterfly waiting for her to lay her eggs.

For one parasite upon the eggs of butterflies, there probably are dozens that attack the caterpillars. A large proportion of the butterfly larvae brought in from out-doors, especially those which are half-grown or more, will yield not butterflies but parasites. This is the experience of practically every one who attempts to rear these in sects, and it emphasizes the value of the advice that in order to get fine specimens, it is desirable to rear them from eggs laid by butterflies beneath netting or in cages.

The life-histories of the parasites that attack cater-pillars vary greatly. The simplest are those of the large Ichneumon flies: The mother fly lays an egg beneath the skin of the caterpillar. The egg hatches into a larva that absorbs the fatty parts of the body of the caterpillar, gradually growing larger and larger until at last it reaches a length of possibly an inch. By this time it is likely to have absorbed so large a part of the inside of the cater-pillar that the latter dies. The parasite larva now changes to a pupa, either inside or outside the skin of the cater pillar, and a little later changes again to an adult Ichneumon fly.

In the case just given, one egg only was deposited within the skin of the caterpillar. In many others, however, a large number of eggs may be so deposited by a single fly. A special group of Ichneumon flies, called the Microgasters, contains many parasites that have this peculiarity. The Microgaster larvae on corning forth from the caterpillar have the habit of spining tiny cocoons within which they change to pupae.

By collecting some cabbage worms which are nearly full grown, and keeping them in a glass jar one can generally get a considerable number of these Microgaster cocoons and rear the flies from them.

Another group of caterpillar parasites is still more minute. They are called the Chalcid flies. Their life histories are full of interest, and might easily furnish opportunity for a long lifetime of study and experiment. One is likely to get hundreds of these Chalcid flies from a single caterpillar.

Another interesting group of parasites is that of the two-winged Tachina flies (see cut on this page). The life-story of some of these is comparatively simple : a buzzing fly, looking much like a large housefly, lays a small whitish egg upon the skin of a caterpillar. This egg is glued tightly and is large enough to be readily seen by the unaided eye. It hatches into a tiny larva that eats its way through the part of the shell glued to the caterpillar's skin, and through the latter at the same time. So the newly hatched Tachina larva finds itself in the body of its caterpillar host. It lives there, absorbing the fatty juices around it until at last it either kills or stupefies its unfortunate victim. It has then become full grown as a larva, and its last larval skin hardens into a brown pupa-case within which the little creature changes into a pupa. It may or may not have burrowed through the skin of the caterpillar before this happened. A little later the pupa changes to a Tachina fly which breaks apart the pupa case and flies out into the world.

It has lately been found, however, that many Tachinids have much more complicated life histories than this. I have already discussed some of the more important of these in my book entitled, "Seeing Nature First."

One can frequently rear parasites from the chrysalids of butterflies, but in many cases it is probable that these began their parasitic development in the caterpillars, which were able to change to chrysalids before being killed. In some cases, however, the chrysalids seem to be attacked, especially by certain Ichneumon flies.

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