This comprises two main families and two much smaller ones the two major families are:- 1] The (Ichneumonidae) commonly referred to as Ichnuemons or incorrectly as Ichneumon Flies (they have two pairs of wings and are definately wasps. They can be distinguished from the rest of the 'Parasitica' because they have numerous veins and thus many cells in their wings. Their are about 1 200 species in Britain alone and some scientists estimate that their may be as many as 100 000 species world-wide. Most Ichneumons are parasites of Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) but the majority of, if not all of the other insect orders have their own Ichneumon parasites as do the spiders.
Though some Ichneumons have short ovipositors i.e. Ophion luteus some have extremely long ones such as Rhyssa persuasoria which preys on the larvae of the Wood Wasp or Horntail Sirex gigas (Symphyta) and has to drill through several cms of living wood with its ovipositor in order to lay its eggs.
The females of Agriotypus armatus preys on caddis-fly (Trichoptera) larvae and has to descend under the water in order to find them and lay its eggs, females of the genus Pezomachus are wingless and lay their eggs inside the eggsac of the spiders who leave their eggsacs on the underside of rocks, the larvae eats all the eggs and then pupates.
The second large family are the Braconids, these are generally smaller often with darkened or partially darkened wings. They all feed in or on insect larvae, however unlike the Ichneumons they do not damage their preys internal organs but feed soley on body fluids. A female Braconid will often lay more than one egg in a given prey item (as many as 150), thus many Braconids can emerge from one victim to pupate immediately outside the shrivelled remains of the catapillar, a typical example is Apanteles glomeratus which preys on the Cabbage White Butterfly Pieris brassicae and its relatives.
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This is the 2nd largest of the Hymenopteran orders with an estimated 80 000 species. They are all small (including Alaptus magnanimus(Myrmaridae) the smallest known insect in the world) and though most are parasites or hyperparasites (parasites preying on other parasites, as when Chalcids use the larvae of Braconids or other Chalcids) of other insects, some are seed parasites of plants. The best known example of this are the members of the family Agaonidae, a very important group of insects who all live in a kind of symbiosis with fig trees. The flowers of the figs are pollinated only by the female Agaonids and most of the 900 species of fig have their own species of Agaonid to pollinate them. The flowers of the figs have long and short styled ovaries in each flower, the Agaonid females can oviposit in the short styled ovaries but not in the long styled ones, thus the short styled ovaries supply food to produce more Agaonids and the long styled ovaries with the help of the Agaonids supply further fig trees. [The ecology of figs and their wasps and the other animals which disperse their fruits is absolutely fascinating and well worth looking into.]
Many Chalcids are hyperparsites on the gall forming Cynipids (see below) and some on other Cynipids which do not form the galls but live in the gall formed by other Cynipids (these are called 'inquilines'). It is amazing to think about the fact that when these small wasps are laying their eggs they lay them through the walls of the gall which may contain many cells (which they can not see) with a variety of occupants and yet like Sirex gigas they never lay in the wrong host or in a larvae that has already been layed in by another member of the same species.
Another amazing member of this superfamily is Caraphractus cintus one of the Fairy Flies (Myrmaridae). Caraphractus is a parasite of the eggs of Diving Beetles (Dytiscidae) and both the males and females swim readily under water, this is hardly surprising as one of the characteristics of this family is that their wings are very narrow near the body so that they look more like oars with hairy ends than conventional insect wings.
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The Cynipoidae are the third largest of the Parasitica superfamilies containing a known 3 000 species and an estimated 20 000. Cynipids are mostly phytophagous (eating plant material) gall induces (i.e. they cause the plant galls which they live in and feed on), though a number are are gall inquilines (i.e. they live in and feed on galls caused by other Cynipids but can not cause galls themselves) and a few are more conventional parasites on the larvae of other insects.
Taxonomists divide them into two groups called the 'microcynipoids' and the 'macrocynipoids'. The Macrocynipoids are largish (up to about 12mm long not including antennae) and are parasites of wood or cone boring insect larvae. The microcynipoids are much smaller (up to 4mm long not including antennae) and are gall inducers, inquilines and parasites ofnon-wood or cone boring insect larvae.
Many of the Gall inducing Cynipids demonstrate an unusual life history strategy called alternation of generations. This means they have a one generation called the 'unisexual generation' which consisting only of females followed by a 'bisexual generation' consisting of males and females. Their are some exceptions though, such as the beautiful Andricus kollari which produces the common or marble oak gall in Europe, which though it has two generation appears to have no males, at least none have been found yet, reproduction in this case is entirely 'parthenogenic' a word which describes the phenomenom not that uncommon among the insects where unfertilised ova mature and produce female only offspring. The two generation often look quite different and can produce galls which look different as well, in the past many of these alternating generations were mistaken for different species. A good example of alternation of generations is Biorrhiza pallida, in the spring the all female generation emerges from their root galls makes their way to the soil surface and then climbs up the tree and lays its eggs in the leaf buds. Galls form from these parasitised buds and what emerges in the late summer is the sexual generation the females of which after mating climb back down the tree and oviposit in the the trees roots which causes more galls and starts the cycle over again.
The gall is produced as a result of the plants response to the wasps egg laying and the presence of the ova, in some cases this is actively assisted by the injection of an irritant into the plant bud by the ovipositing female, i.e. Pontamia proxima a parasite of willows.
Not all galls are made by Cynipoids though, Diptera, Lepidoptera, Acari, Homoptera and even some Coleoptera can also cause galls as well as various fungi and microorganisms.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used galls as a source of dyes because of their high tannin content.
It can be a lot of fun to collect galls after they are mature but before the inhabitants are ready to leave, keep the twig in a container with some damp sand in the bottom. You will find that what comes out of some galls is an amazing collection of insects consisting not only of the gall former but also of gall inquilines as well as parasites of both the gall former and the inquiline plus the hyperparasites of all these and sometimes hyper-hyperparasites. You can become a good taxonomist sorting them all out.
The rest of the Parasitica are less in number all together than the Cynipoidae and are less well known though they are all parasites, hyperparasites or inquilines as above and the separation is mostly of interest only to taxonomists.
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