email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Beauty of Insect Eggs
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What you see in the accompanying photo gallery are the eggs of a few small branches of the insect tree of life. Among them are those of some butterflies that face extraordinary travails to defend themselves against predators and, sometimes, against plants on which they are laid. Some passionflowers transform parts of their leaves into shapes that resemble butterfly eggs; mother butterflies, seeing the "eggs," move on to other plants to deposit their babies. Such mimics are imperfect, but fortunately so is butterfly vision.

Eggs must also somehow escape having the eggs of another type of insect, parasitoids, laid inside of them. Parasitoid wasps and flies use their long ovipositors to thrust their eggs into the eggs and bodies of other insects. Roughly 10 percent of all insect species are parasitoids. It is a well-rewarded lifestyle, punished only by the existence of hyper­parasitoids, which lay their eggs inside the bodies of parasitoids while they are inside the bodies or eggs of their own hosts. Many butterfly eggs and caterpillars eventually turn into wasps as a consequence of this theater of life. Even the dead and preserved eggs shown here are likely to hold mysteries. Inside some are young butterflies, but inside others may be wasps or flies that have already eaten their first supper and, of course, their last.

Every so often, and against all odds, a group of insects has regressed a little and decided to care more actively for its young. Here and there we see the evidence. Dung beetles roll dung balls for their babies. Carrion beetles roll bodies. And then there are the roaches, some of which carry their newborn nymphs on their backs. The eggs of these insects have become featureless and round again, like lizard eggs, and in so doing also become more vulnerable and in need of care, like our own young. Yet they survive. Perhaps they are the vanguard of what will come next, the next kingdom beginning to rise. Though perhaps not. Recently I watched a dung beetle rolling a ball, and the ball looked like a rising sun. Above that beetle was a fly trying to lay an egg inside the beetle's head.

Insects have been cracking out of eggs for hundreds of millions of years. It is happening now, all around you. If you listen, you can almost hear the crumbling of the shells as tiny feet, six at a time, push into the world. 

Rob Dunn and Martin Oeggerli worked together on the story about pollen in the December 2009 issue.
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