Nature is like a jigsaw puzzle. For a curious onlooker, it presents information in bits and pieces, which on their own don’t seem to convey the story in its entirety. Only after observing the entire sequence of events and putting the pieces of information together does the complete picture begin to emerge.
Here’s one, where the whole story came to the fore only after the entire set of events that unfolded over a period of few days was pieced together.
Arthropods are probably one of the most diverse of all living things inhabiting our planet. They come in an amazing array of shapes and sizes. One day, I noticed this particular individual sitting on a leaf in my garden. It looked like something straight out an alien movie and its behaviour was very weird too.
Probably perceiving me as a threat, it began to close down its long hairy, tail-like extensions, flat on the leaf, as if lying prostrate or in salute. It also started moving in circles and then forward, sideways and sometimes backwards too. I struggled to even tell apart the front from the rear of this insect.
As to what it really was, wasn’t clear at that time.
A few days on, I learnt that this was a nymph (young one) of an insect commonly known as a plant-hopper. To be more specific, it is from the plant-hopper family, Eurybrachyidae.
A plant-hopper is any insect in the infra-order Fulgoromorpha within the order of Hemiptera. It is named so because of its remarkable resemblance to leaves and other plants in its environment, and from the fact that it often seems to ‘hop’ for quick transportation in a way similar to that of grasshoppers. Plant-hoppers are widely distributed, and all members of this group feed mostly on the sap from plants.
A few days later, I spotted an insect with an interesting appearance sitting in a groove on a wall, outside my house. It seemed like it was trying to locate an appropriate place for some reason, but I didn’t know why. Some research online revealed that it was an adult plant-hopper, the adult form of the nymph in the pictures above.
This is when the whole story seemed to start falling into place. I had seen a nymph before and now there was it’s adult form.
A few minutes later, when I went out to look for the insect again, it was still there, almost motionless, with some kind of white waxy secretion coming out of its posterior. I realized, then, that it was laying its eggs and covering them up with a layer of the white secretion.
It packed the eggs tight with the white substance, a substance, which is strong, hard and waterproof as well. How amazing is that!
Once the egg case was covered, the plant-hopper left. However, nature has its own way of adding surprising twists to a story. A tiny wasp was interested in the plant-hopper’s eggs. This parasitic insect, pictured in the image below, was trying to identify the location of the eggs beneath the case’s surface in order to penetrate the same and lay its own eggs there.
Parasitoidal wasps can range from some of the smallest species of insects, to wasps about an inch long. They parasitise their own favoured life-stages, like egg, larva or adult of particular species of insects. Most females have a spine-like ovipositor at the tip of the abdomen, which they use to deposit their own eggs inside of their host’s bodies or eggs. The females of some parasitoid species also insert secretory products that protect their eggs from the immune system of the host, thus allowing its eggs to develop instead of the host’s.
The infected eggs, as one might guess, will develop into a wasp, while the others that weren’t infected develop normally and after a certain period of time, a new brood will emerge from the egg case. A whole bunch of little plant-hopper nymphs come into the world, to start their life’s journey.
They leave behind the deserted remains of their egg case and the eggshells.
These nymphs, being so tiny and defenseless, might fall prey to predators easily. Hence, they seem to rely on mimicry, some on camouflage and some try to take the services of ants as their bodyguards. They do this by providing the ants with their sugar-rich liquid secretion, known as honeydew, made from the plant sap that they feed on.