Blister beetles use sex and subterfuge to infiltrate bee's nests

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The Kelso Dunes, located halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas in the Mojave National Preserve, is an unlikely setting for a soap opera. But the springtime behavior of blister beetles puts the daily machinations of "The Young and The Restless" to shame.

In what researchers say is a "remarkable mode of host-finding," newborn blister beetle larvae of the species Meloe franciscanus mimic female bees as part of a three-step strategy to infiltrate and parasitize the bee's nest. Blister beetles pull off their charade much the same way human performers create Chinese parade dragons, with individuals working cooperatively to form the illusion of a single animal. This is the first reported instance of parasitic larvae cooperating to mimic female host species, report San Francisco State University scientists in the May 4 issue of NATURE.

Upon hatching from their sandy burrow, hundreds of these dark-orange beetle larvae, called triungulins, navigate their way to the tip of the nearest plant stem, where they form wriggling masses, or aggregations, that roughly resemble-and likely smell like-female Habropoda pallida bees, says lead author Dr. John Hafernik, who with co-author Leslie Saul-Gershenz documented this behavior during the springs of 1992 and 1999 from the CSU Desert Studies Center.

According to the researchers, once the triungulin mass successfully lures a male bee into pseudocopulation, the larvae use pincher-like limbs to attach themselves to the underside of the duped bees. These males then deposit the larvae on to female bees during further mating attempts, a process called venereal transmission.

"By first attaching to a male bee, triungulins have access to multiple females and, subsequently, the multiple nests of each female," says Saul-Gershenz.

Female bees then unwittingly transport these larvae back to their nests while provisioning them with p

Contact: Merrik Bush-Pirkle
San Francisco State University

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