bee basham cuckoo insect

Cuckoo insect species take advantage of the hard work of other insects by stealing the spoils of their labor.

Insects are capable of supremely impressive tasks accomplished through the dogged pursuit of hard work. Conservative estimates of the economic value of insects in the United States alone are over $50 billion a year through the pollination, recycling of nutrients, and pest control that these backyard laborers freely provide to our landscapes and farmlands. 

Pollinating insects are directly responsible for the healthy succession of generations in most flowering plants (about 90 percent of the plant kingdom), and they brave life-threatening predators, weather and other hazards during every trip to their local blooms. Social species like ants, along with a few bee and wasp species, are capable of building mammoth nests with an order and grace far removed from our chaotic and disruptive human settlements. 

These animals provide countless other critical environmental tasks as well, such as dispersing seeds, loosening and stirring soil, breaking down dead material and more. It goes without saying that we owe a great deal to the hardworking insects all around us. 

These tiny powerhouses are not necessarily role models for the rest of the insect world,  however. In fact, there are species of insects that have decided they would rather work smarter than harder compared to their busy relatives.

As insects slowly evolved and took over the world, there eventually became a point where regional insects began to compete for dwindling floral and other resources. Perhaps as a response to this lack of plentiful forage, a few wily species realized that they could take advantage of the hard work of those around them. Instead of foraging for the pollen, nectar or prey that was needed to raise their young, these hooligans decided to steal that which was already collected. 

Known as cuckoo species, many of these insects began entering the nests of similar species and usurping their cache. A good example of this maneuver can be seen in our solitary bees and wasps. As we know, the vast majority of the bees and wasps in this country are solitary, living alone and provisioning their young with a ball of pollen or prey before sealing them off in small cells to continue their development alone. It is believed that each one of these species most likely has a specific cuckoo that waits for just the right moment to intrude on this process. 

Each cuckoo is as unique in its methods as the prey it parasitizes, however generally this feat involves killing the original occupant’s egg and replacing it with their own. While risky, this tactic has worked well enough that there are thousands of highly specialized cuckoo species in the world, especially in areas of high insect diversity. 

Many cuckoo bees, for example, have actually lost most of their trademark hairs since they no longer need to gather pollen from flowers. Although this seems detrimental to our native insects, cuckoo species help keep insect populations at a sustainable level, preventing a single species from exploding in numbers and overshadowing their neighbors.

Social insects have developed life cycles that tend to be a bit more complex than their solitary cousins. The cuckoo species that depend on these insects have kept pace with their subtle advancements. Bumble bees, which make nests numbering from around 30 to a few hundred individuals, are parasitized by some of the most cunning cuckoo species known to science. Many bumble bee cuckoos will actually enter an active nest in the hopes that they blend in long enough to pick up the hive’s scents, which are used to tell friend from foe. Once properly scented, the cuckoo bee will either kill or physically bully the original queen, taking over her position as lead egg-layer and forcing the hive to raise her progeny. 

Cuckoo insects represent nature’s unflappable power in working out solutions to various problems.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.