Friday, 5 February 2010

Macro Monday Blues


This little beauty is a silver-studded blue, Plebejus acmon, photographed somewhere along the Southern Californian coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. To be honest, it is more commonly known as an acmon blue, but I thought the alternative name was much nicer.

I love these little blue butterflies. They are so delicate and yet so hardy, able to survive in the harsh windy and arid environment of the Californian coastline. Their markings are exquisite and who wouldn’t want such a gorgeous pair of stripy antennae? They do have a few survival tactics up their scaly wings. The most interesting one is an association that they have with ants. You see, ants are a very sociable bunch and though they are small, there is strength and safety in numbers. One ant is not a problem, but who wants to take on a whole army of them, what with their bitey jaws and stinging backsides? So, what the defenceless little blue caterpillars do (the caterpillars are actually brownish yellow, if we are going to be accurate here) is to pay the ants for some protection. Each caterpillar is equipped with a honey gland which emits a sugary solution which is to the ants' liking. The ants will protect the caterpillars from predation and then go to the ant for the payoff – a nice large droplet of sugar solution. The caterpillars can go one step further and even call for help if required. They have a pair of tubercles on their abdomens that can emit a chemical that mimics an ant alarm pheromone. This makes the ants think that they are under attack and so they all rush to the aid of the caterpillar, resulting in a frenzied and aggressive defence. Everyone is happy, everyone is a winner (well, except for the would-be predator of the caterpillar, who loses out on lunch and gets terrorised by ants). Nature, all cosy and cooperative.

I could leave it there, letting you all swan off believing in the benevolence of Nature, but let’s keep things in perspective. Where Nature is concerned, it is every species for itself and each species will do what benefits it the most. For the silver-studded blue and the ants, the alliance is holding strong. But, as in all alliances, it relies on both partners cooperating fully and equally. And, as in all alliances, there is always the chance that one side might betray the other - come on, you all must have seen this happen time and time again on Survivor. In the ant / blue butterfly alliance, there are some very good examples of where the flirty, flighty, innocent-looking butterfly has become the ant’s worst nightmare. One example is the large blue butterfly, Maculinea arion, of England. This gorgeous creature was declared extinct in England in 1979, but has since been reintroduced to several sites in Southern England. The caterpillars begin life feeding on the flowers of wild thyme, but after several moults, they fall to the ground where they pretend to be ant grubs. If they are lucky, some unsuspecting ant will come along and, after much scrutinising, will decide that some poor baby ant has lost its way, pick it up and take it back to its nest. The caterpillar deceives the ant both visually, by rearing up on its legs to look like an ant grub and chemically, by emitting a chemical soup that makes it smells just like an ant. Once the caterpillar makes it back to the ant’s nest, life is good. It spends its time pretending to be an ant, being looked after and protected by the ants while dining away on the ant’s real offspring. This is one of the few examples of a carnivorous caterpillar. The chemical deception continues as the caterpillar pupates and transforms into the lovely adult, which, once it emerges from the pupa, hightails it out of the nest before it expands its wings and flutters away.

Of course, the butterfly does not have it all its own way. One of the reasons for all this trickery is to get below ground into the safety of the ants’ nest, out of sight of potential predators. However, some predators are so good they can still sniff them out no matter where they are. In this case, there is a parasitoid wasp that is able to find the blue caterpillars. It is able to track them down into the ant’s nest. Once it reaches the nest, it too douses itself with ant pheromones so that it does not get attacked by the ants. It then enters the nest and is able to pick out the caterpillars from the ant grubs. No-one knows quite how it achieves this amazing olfactory feat, but it does. Once a target has been identified, it injects an egg into the caterpillar. This egg will then hatch and the wasp grub will grow inside the caterpillar, slowly eating it from the inside out, leaving the most vital organs until last to ensure the meal stays aliveand fresh for as long as possible. The wasp grub then pupates inside the caterpillar, nice and safe from the ants, to later emerge as a shiny new adult, which also hightails it out of the nest as quick as it can.

Nature - beautiful, magnificent, glorious and delightful.

Nature - sinister, deadly, macabre, and unforgiving. Survival of the fittest indeed.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

24 comments:

Jama said...

The butterfly is so beautiful!

Tammie Lee said...

Yes indeed nature has its way. I have seen this little butterfly and it is sweetly beautiful as is your photo.

Perry said...

Very pretty butterfly! Well captured.

Johnny Nutcase said...

Agreed! I love their antennae! Beautiful photo and great info and post too.

Cortes said...

Another wonderful posting, great little butterfly, and a fascinating story to go with it (I love ants). Now, what do I have to look forward to on Monday??

Kala said...

Excellent clarity, should be viewed large to really appreciate its beauty.

Colleen said...

My goodness, that's fascinating! It certainly is a bug eat bug world out there. Great photo too!

Manang Kim said...

The color looks like snow ^_^

Macro-Dama de noche

Suldog said...

I love butterflies of all types (and moths, as well, but no need to go there.) We don't have any of such a delicate color up here, at least that I know of. Lovely.

awarewriter said...

Thank you for your photo of this lovely creature and for your excellent article.

jay said...

Isn't it amazing what some creatures do to survive? Honestly, the Machiavellian lifestyle of some of them make us homo sapiens look positively benign!

Great post!

Valerie@composition-life said...

I did butterflies for my Mosaic Monday post today.
I raised Monarchs last summer and tried to make a few mosaics about each portion of the life cycle. It was so much fun!

Katherine said...

Since I first saw something less-than-delightful on some nature programme when I was a little girl - probably lions eating a gazelle - I've been under no illusions. It's a lion-eat-gazelle world out there.

But it was still the pits to recently see a stink bug sucking the life juices out of one of my monarch caterpillars which was just about to pupate!

msdewberry said...

Now that is the way to capture a butterfly!! Not in some net...
Beautiful picture.

English Mum said...

Great story. I need you here at bedtime to read it out to me, then I'd nod off dreaming of caterpillars and pretty blue butterflies (or having nightmares about deceptive caterpillars eating my children)x

Don't Bug Me! said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments!

Cortes: You will just have to wait for another post - who knows how long that will take!?! It is not very often that I actually get something done ahead of time.

Suldog: Wait until summer, then go and look. I am sure that you will find some.

Jay: If only we were benign.....

Katherine: Nature, red in tooth and claw.

EM: I am thinking that this little story is probably more to the nightmare side of things - unless you just stop when all is good and everyone is cooperating.

Kate said...

Ant pheromones and carnivorous caterpillars - what ever next? And there was me thinking 'what a pretty butterfly'!!!!

Baino said...

Always so interesting coming here. I have a variety of mud wasp that delights in packing caterpillars and tiny green spiders into the exhaust outflow of my leaf blower before laying it's lonely egg! Bungs up the whole thing with mud and I can't start it! We have to put a pencil or piece of dowel into the exhaust to deter the wasp!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Kate: Ah, Nature can be very deceptive and very ugly!

Baino: Not a problem I have here, since the lot that I live on is the size of a postage stamp and most of the leaves are picked up by my cats (when they get caught in their fur - as usual they are not trying to do something useful!)

Sistertex said...

Ooooo, gorgeous.

A seriously great butterfly photo.

Don't Bug Me! said...

Sitertex: Thanks!

Dave said...

Beautiful butterfly image - love the title too! Have you heard about the Circus of the Spineless? It's an invertebrate related monthly carnival and this post would fit very well with the theme!

Cheers,

Dave

Don't Bug Me! said...

Dave: Thanks for the info about Circus of the Spineless. I shall have to go and check it out.

Andree said...

Stunning photograph! What a beautiful creature.