FASCINATING! Mind-Control Turns Bugs into Zombies (pictures & videos)

Zombie movies have been all the rage recently, but did you know that bugs (insects, and the odd arachnid) are turned into zombies and forced, through some pretty freaky voodoo mind-control, to do some pretty sinister things? I've always been a bug lover, but some of these things really do boggle the mind. I've included videos for most of these, so you don't think I'm making it up!

Run, cockroaches, run!
Run, cockroaches, run! | Source

Emerald Cockroach Wasp - turns cockroaches into willing food for its young!

The emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa) is a brilliantly-colored green wasp, as its name suggests. The other part of its name tells you what it's also known for—mesmerizing cockroaches and making them willing victims for its voracious grubs!

This is its M.O.: when an emerald cockroach wasp is ready to lay its eggs, it seeks out cockroaches, which are, fortunately for the wasp and unfortunately for us, all too easy to find. It will tackle the cockroach and first sting a specific ganglion (insect nerve cluster) in the cockroach's thorax (center region), temporarily paralyzing its front two legs. This makes it easy for the wasp to make a second sting to a specific spot in its head ganglion that controls the cockroach's escape reflex. Without an escape reflex, the cockroach becomes a willing slave. After snipping off half of the cockroach's antenna and (seriously) drinking the blood out of them, the wasp grabs one of the antenna and leads the zombified cockroach into a burrow, usually underground. The wasp then lays an egg on the cockroach's abdomen, and then packs the burrow with debris so other predators don't come in and walk off with the cockroach.

The egg then hatches into a larva, which bites a hole into the cockroach and sucks out its blood to feed on. Keep in mind the cockroach is still alive and conscious, but has no impulse to run away or fight off the larva! After a few days, the larva digs into the cockroach and eats it from the inside out. It then pupates inside the dead cockroach, and emerges as a new adult wasp, ready to wreak havoc on another unsuspecting cockroach!

Glyptapanteles - turns caterpillars into zombie guards (and food for its larvae!)

Glyptapanteles is another innocuous-looking, but frightening, little wasp. Well, frightening if you're a caterpillar. This wasp attacks caterpillars, laying dozens of little eggs (up to 80, in fact) inside their body. The eggs hatch into larvae that feed off the caterpillar's body fluid, but avoid its organs so the caterpillar stays alive. Then, when the larvae are ready to pupate, they chew a hole into the caterpillar's skin and wriggle out (see the disgusting video below to see this in action)!

Shockingly, the caterpillar is still alive as a bunch of worms burrow out of its skin. One or two larvae stay behind and turn the caterpillar into a zombie. The caterpillar stops feeding, and, instead helps spin protective silk around the pupating larvae, and even fends off potential attackers of the pupae. Eventually, its usefulness gone, the caterpillar starves to death.

Yes, that's a cordyceps fungus growing out of the dead ant's head!
Yes, that's a cordyceps fungus growing out of the dead ant's head! | Source

Cordyceps fungus turns ants into zombies

One particular type of cordyceps fungus develops an unusual parasitic relationship with ants (other varieties parasitize other insects and arthropods). The fungus, when it infects an ant, begins to affect its nervous system, effectively making it into a zombie. The ant will abandon all normal activity, start acting confused, and make its way up to the top of a tall plant or tree, the fungus instructing it to do so.

When it reaches the top, it will grab onto the plant with a death grip and eventually die. Then the cordyceps fungus will grow out of its head (see pictures!), consuming the poor dead ant's innards, and release its spores. The position at the top of the plant, of course, helps the fungus spread its spores as far and wide as possible.

Other ants will recognize the strange behavior of an infected ant, and will usually grab it and throw the demented ant far away from the colony, knowing that if it stays, it could pose a danger to the whole colony when the fungus emerges from its head.

A normal, elegant web.
A normal, elegant web. | Source
An ugly, but strong-through-reinforcement web, used by the larva to suspend from to pupate.
An ugly, but strong-through-reinforcement web, used by the larva to suspend from to pupate. | Source
The larva feasting on the spider's hemolymph, and slowly altering its mind.
The larva feasting on the spider's hemolymph, and slowly altering its mind. | Source

Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga turns spiders into cocoon-spinning zombies

We've discussed two small, harmless-looking wasps that turn cockroaches and caterpillars into their zombie hosts. Here's another that does the same to a particular Costa Rican orchard spider: the Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga.

This is how it enacts its sinister plan: the female wasp stings the orchard spider, temporarily paralyzing it so it can lay an egg on the spider's abdomen. The egg hatches a larva which feeds on the spider's hemolymph, while the spider continues about its normal business. Then after a week or two, the larva injects the spider with a poison which will change its web-spinning ability drastically. Instead of beautifully patterned webs that it had been spinning, the spider, under the zombie poison of the larva, starts a completely different, sloppy-looking web that is reinforced and will hold a much heavier object--the larva's cocoon.

The larva then kills the spider, digests all of its internal organs and hemolymph, and then pupates while dangling from the reinforced web that the poor zombified spider had built for it before it was offed and eaten.

Why? The pupa needs some protection from scavenging insects such as ants. Dangling from a web is a perfect place for the pupa to develop when it's most defenseless.

Myrmoxenus ravouxi, a slavemaker ant
Myrmoxenus ravouxi, a slavemaker ant | Source

Slavemaker ants use "propaganda substances" to turn fool other ants into being their willing slaves!

Slavemaker ants (including Myrmoxenus ravouxi, Formica sanguinea, Rossomyrmex minuchae, and Formica subintegra, among others) are a peculiar variety of ants that must have other ants do work for them. Some species will even die in the presence of food if an enslaved ant doesn't actually feed them! How they're able to turn normally industrious ants into their zombie slaves is really intriguing. In some slavemaking ant species, even some Shakespearean intrigue is involved that would make Macbeth and Hamlet's Claudius proud!

When certain types of slavemaker ants want to take over another ant colony, they use some bioactive substances (specifically specific decyl and dodecyl acetates) that they store in their Dufour's gland, to change the behavior of the soon-to-be-enslaved ants: these ants start to panic and disperse, and often even start attacking their own kind! The host nest in total disarray, unable to mount a defense, becomes easy prey for the slavemaker ants, who typically cart off with the nest's eggs and pupae.

Another clever, but devious, technique is employed by the Ravoux's slavemaker ant (Myrmoxenus ravouxi). In the hubbub of an invasion when the enslaved ants are incapable of mounting a defense, the slavemaker queen will seek out the host queen and literally strangle her to death (sometimes decapitating her in the process). If any of the workers rush to the queen's defense before she's killed, the slavemaker queen will calm them down by stroking their antennae. After the host queen is killed, or possibly during the strangulation, some pheromones (cuticular hydrocarbons) are passed on from the host queen to the slavemaker queen, making the enslaved ants believe that she is their queen.

Uninfected and infected ants
Uninfected and infected ants | Source

Myrmeconema neotropicum makes ants turn themselves into bird food!

Myrmeconema neotropicum is a nematode (worm) that uses ants in a really creepy--but cool--way to disperse its eggs far and wide. The black ants that get infected by it do so by eating bird droppings with the eggs in South American jungles. When infected, the ants change in appearance and behavior in the following ways:

  • their abdomens turn from black to bright red
  • they begin straying farther away from the nest
  • they tend to climb up high in trees
  • they get more sluggish
  • they walk around pointing their bright red abdomens uncharacteristically upward

So what ends up happening? From further away they begin to look like bright red berries...exactly the type of food that birds like! Birds snatch them up and eat them, thereby perpetuating the process.

Yep, that's a really gross worm emerging out of this grasshopper.
Yep, that's a really gross worm emerging out of this grasshopper. | Source

Spinochordodes tellinii makes grasshoppers and crickets drown themselves!

This is a pretty gruesome worm. It's really gross.

When an unfortunate grasshopper or cricket eats one of this worm's eggs, the egg hatches inside the insect's body and begins to grow. It will carefully do so without killing the insect, avoiding organs and surviving on the insect's hemolymph (its blood). When it reaches maturity, it does something to the insect's brain that impels it to jump into water when it sees a body of water, and drown (grasshoppers and crickets don't normally do this!).

Then, when the grasshopper is dead (sometimes before!), the worm, now 3-4 times as long as the insect, pops out and lives on where it will eventually lay eggs and continue the lifecycle.

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Comments 14 comments

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Finishing this (albeit fascinating) article was tough, seeing as I had to, on multiple occasions, stop myself from clawing out my eyes, vomiting on my computer, and then hurling my body out of a window. Forget horror films. Forget aliens. Forget... well, forget EVERYTHING we used to pass off as scary. This. THIS. Is some disturbing $#!%.


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Haha, ain't that the truth! It is shocking to see how sophisticated some of these techniques are. The emerald green wasp and Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga both use such mind-bogglingly complex mind control methods to achieve their reproductive life cycle goals. And to think, given arthropods relative age compared to us "newcomers," most had evolved to do these things before the first Homo sapiens walked the earth!

Thank you for your awesome comment which captures my sentiments exactly!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

But THAT'S THE SCARY THING! Once we've been around for long enough, more organisms will figure out how to game us in SIMILAR MANNERS!!! THE DAYS OF THE HUMAN RACE ARE NUMBERED!! The horror.... the horror...


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

You're right! The idea that there might be a giant worm that's 3 times taller than me inside my body that's manipulating my every move is a pretty frightening one. Would make for a terrific scifi thriller.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia

Wow. I don't know what to say. Truth really is stranger than fiction!


Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 5 years ago from Jamaica

I sure am glad I ain't no bug, yikes! Veeeery, veeery scary stuff, you think those things will start on humans!... I'd hate to think that, yikes!


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Haha! Pretty spooky stuff, definitely.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

I really appreciated this hub, livelonger, since I am well into interviewing weird animals in addition to deceased celebrities, and these insects ARE weird. Thanks for the introduction. My next hub will be Interview with Banana Spider - another enchanting arachnid.


tlmcgaa70 profile image

tlmcgaa70 5 years ago from south dakota, usa

very fascinating hub, very well written. good work. that fungus was the most amazing to me. the creepiest was the worm coming out of the cricket...mostly because i watched such a thing happen. i was on a farm in eastern south dakota, and there was a large corn field next to the house. crickets were thick and hard to keep out of the house. one night i saw a cricket making its way across the floor and took a shoe and smacked it. i started to turn away to get a paper towel to clean him up with when he started wriggling again. i could not believe my eyes, i know i smacked him hard enough to squish him flat. as i looked closer, i saw something try to emerge out of a split in the crickets abdomen. now...i have seen the movie aliens...and this looked so similar to that that it completely creeped me out...and i just dont creep out over bugs. i grabbed a paper towel and by the time i got back this worm had emerged that was far longer than i believed possible for having just been inside that little cricket. i scooped the whole mess up and threw it in the garbage disposal.


AEvans profile image

AEvans 5 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

OMG! I can't stand bugs but almost feel sorry for the cockroach as he is dragged to his death and the poor little caterpillar.:( This is very interesting and I did not realize how intense their own little world was, this was very educational and I shared it with the kids. :)


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

drbj: LOVED your interview with Goldie! Left you a comment there.

tlmc: Yes, I've heard of (and seen, in YouTube videos) of that exact same experience. The smashing kills the cricket, but the worm just wriggles out. I would have been totally freaked out if I hadn't known what was going on!

AEvans: Yes, you do almost feel sorry for the cockroach, which is gross but sadly being led to its own demise by that wasp. But, yes, for kids (and, um, adults!) who are obsessed with insect activity, this kind of stuff is really educational.

Thank you all for your comments!


xcubist profile image

xcubist 5 years ago

Ok, I gotta agree with Simone here. This is just too creepy! Gives me the he-b-je-b's. I hate bugs, spiders even more.


CloudExplorer profile image

CloudExplorer 5 years ago from New York City

Holy crap i never seen a Roach get handled with such ease before, and I watched my own helping of nature videos as a child, this is an extraordinary hub you got here, Cool stuff man, when you thought you've seen it all you just never know. Amazing! oh and nice images too.


NormaRuth profile image

NormaRuth 5 years ago from Oregon

Fascinating article. Very well done

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