Any member of the very large insect
family Ichneumonidae, of which an estimated 100,000 species
. Its horrific
manner of breeding
once shook the foundations of Christianity
The standard Ichneumon wasp has two pairs of veiny wings and an ovipositor on the abdomen for breeding. However, there is great variation within the family. Some wasps have a short one, but the Rhyssa persuasoria needs an especailly long organ so that it can drill through wood to lay its eggs in the larvae of the Wood wasp. Other species need to dive underwater to find their larvae, and still others are wingless, and place their eggs inside spider eggs.
In earlier centuries, some Christian philosophers believed that since animals do not have souls, they must have been placed on this earth to provide spiritual direction to man, their master. Thus, by observing the lion, we would learn God
s lesson on true pride, and by watching an anthill, we can pick up a few things about cooperation. With some animals, such as the rat, it was a little trickier to figure out the lesson, but a kluge was usually found, (Maybe they taught us to live in clean conditions). This theory was an impetus for the church to direct more of its efforts into zoology, so that more animals could be found for us to project our egos onto.
A bit of a conundrum was found when our biotheologists first recorded the breeding habits of the average Ichneumon:
- The wasp finds a nice fat caterpillar, and stings it. This does not kill the bug, but paralyzes it.
- She lays her eggs in the body of the caterpillar, and flies off.
- After a few days, the wasp eggs begin to hatch inside the bug.
- The wasp larvae begin to eat the caterpillar's flesh for nourishment. But they don't just go around eating everything willy-nilly. If they kill the bug, the flesh will start to decay. So they start with the fat cells.
- Once they've eaten the fat, they move on to the muscle.
- Once they've eaten the muscle, they move on to other non-vital organs.
- Once they've eaten the non-vital organs, they finally eat something the bug needs to survive, like the heart, and put the caterpillar out of its mercy.
This process takes about two days. The caterpillar can be observed twitching
in pain the whole time.
So, what is the message to us from our just and loving God? Theologans were quick to offer bad suggestions. Some thought it was a demonstration of the original sin of the caterpillar, which would grow up into a pest. Others suggested that maybe the agony of the insect could be likened to the ecstasy of martyrdom of the saints. Still others believed that it was a preview of the punishment that sinners could expect in hell. Nobody was really all that convinced. In the end, someone suggested that maybe the message was that nature is cruel, and that some animals just don't carry any message at all.
These days, we know too much about nature to make that mistake again. The lion has been unmasked as a scavenging bully, and the anthill is more an example of emergent design from chaos than any real central planning. The ichneuman wasp serves as a warning against projecting our own emotions onto creatures that lack the slightest shred of human compassion.
Thanks to insect-world.com for the taxonomy, and to Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes by Stephen Jay Gould for the historical context.