Night of the Living Dead, Part II: Carpenters and Soldiers

Back in 2014 I found a grasshopper that seemed quite willing to provide a never-ending pose for the camera. Ultimately I learned that this poor creature didn’t have much say in the matter. He was infected with “summit disease” caused by Entomophaga grylli, a grasshopper specific fungus. In writing my article at that time, I put two and two together and realized that a planthopper I had encountered was inflicted by a similar phenomenon.

Margined Soldier Beetle a.k.a. Margined Leatherwing (Chauliognathus marginatus) infected by fungus

Fast forward to 2018.  I recently encountered two more insects that met the same fate as said grasshopper and planthopper. While photographing leatherwing soldier beetles, I saw that one had slightly outspread wings…an unusual stance for this pollinator. When I brought up the photos to edit I saw that he was clamped on to the plant and also that there was the appearance of a fungus beginning to take over. I immediately thought back to my grasshopper/planthopper article and did some research. Lo’ and behold, my little soldier had succumbed to Eryniopsis lampyridarum (syn. Entomophthora lampyridarum) fungus, a pathogen of soldier beetles.

The beetle latches on tightly to a flower where it will slowly be killed from the inside by the entomopathogenic fungus

Some entomologists believe that fungi are the primary regulatory agents of insect outbreaks worldwide.

The wings continue to expand open until the fungus fully develops to finally release its spores starting the cycle anew

Less than a week later I found a carpenter ant that also was afflicted by some sort of summit disease caused by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a cordycep specific to ants. Latched on to the fallen needle of a Long Leaf Pine Tree which had caught itself in a Live Oak, I photographed him (her?) over the next few weeks after learning that it takes that long for the true affects to be become evident.

Carpenter Ant (Camponotus sp. likely floridanus)

A couple of days after my first encounter with the zombie ant, I got to observe a wand-type projection emanating from the ant’s head. Apparently it will produce a small sphere that will ultimately burst to send forth spores and begin the process anew.  The anatomy of this lifecycle is fascinating.

As the fungus takes over the ant, a fruiting wand-shaped body grows from the back of the head

…there are thousands of different varieties of the cordyceps fungus. Each one specializes in a single insect species that it can control with its zombie-making abilities.

There are now many studies to see if this may be a natural solution to pest control in agriculture.

the fungal projection continues to grow daily.

So, why all this sudden activity at my place?  According to the University of Maryland Extension, it might have something to do with how high the relative humidity is.(1)  Florida is synonymous with high humidity.

Why don’t others see more of this natural control?

Chemical sprays can have a negative impact on IPF [insect-pathogenic fungi] by killing or inhibiting fungal spores. (ibid.)

Yet another indication that man-made chemicals defeat built-in balances of our natural environment and have no place in a home garden.

While I’m not thrilled by the beetle being infected since beetles are a good thing in my book, I can say that I hope the spores from the ant find their mark on a good many more carpenter ants…always a problem child at my place.

Yes, ants have their purpose in the circle of life aerating soil and as decomposers, but they do tend to invade my house from time to time so any type of non-toxic control gets a big thumbs up from me.

Still no signs of the Perthecial plate, but I’m still monitoring it.

 

Select resources and additional reading:

(1) Nicole Rusconi and Cerruti R Hooks, University of Maryland Extension, Fungal Entomopathogens: An Enigmatic Pest Control Alternative

National Science Foundation, PEET: A monographic study of Cordyceps and related fungi

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