Intentional Life is Serious Business: Of Wasps and Stings

Ampulex compressa

Ampulex compressa

The Jewel Wasp is a solitary creature for most of its life. Named for its shimmering metallic blue-green sheen, it looks like a flying jewel.[1] Along with its looks, another notable characteristic is its use of cockroaches as part of its reproductive cycle. When the fertile female’s eggs are ready to be laid she hunts the grounds of her native territory in South Asia, Africa and certain Pacific islands for a cockroach. Once found, the wasp goes into action. She first gives the roach a measured and precision sting in a very specific area of its nervous system.[2] This venomous injection causes a 2 to 3 minute paralysis of the roach’s legs.

While the roach is temporarily immobile, the wasp administers an even more refined series of precision stings that do a number of other things to the now doomed roach. This second series of stings prevent the roach from walking spontaneously, it disables the roach’s escape instincts and changes its metabolism. The roach can still do things such as stand up, jump and walk if prodded, but otherwise it just stands there… waiting. The connections between the cockroach brain and motor signals have been surgically severed by the wasp venom. Both its behavior and metabolism have been edited by the wasp’s surgical strikes. The roach begins grooming itself excessively. The wasp grabs its waggling antennae and chews off half of each of them.[3] The roach stands there, a helpless pawn in the clutches of wasp’s desire. This stinging, antennae munching encounter completes the preparation for the next phase of the roach’s waspy relationship adventure.

As the behaviorally modified metabolically altered zombie-roach-slave stands there awaiting the wasps’ bidding, she goes off to dig a burrow in the soil. The wasp then leads the roach into the burrow using one of the chewed antennas as a leash. It proceeds to lay an egg on the roach’s abdomen and seals in the burrow entrance to keep other predators out. The roach stands in a state of suspended stupor as the wasp egg hatches into a larva and begins to feed on it, eventually chewing a hole large enough to crawl inside. From inside the roach motel, the wasp larva strategically eats its organs at the same time it secretes several kinds of antibiotics to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi and viruses.[4] The wasp protects the roach with one hand as it saps the nourishment it needs to develop into a fully formed wasp pupa with the other. Once fully formed it bursts out of the now dead roach’s exoskeleton, then emerges from the combination roach execution chamber and wasp nursery to look for food, a mate and, if it’s female, to someday hunt roaches on which to lay its eggs…

We might consider this simultaneously horrific and fascinating story of the life cycle of a Jewel Wasp one of nature’s astounding expressions of biological relationships in the parasitic and predatory realms. If we look slightly deeper, we see a no less amazing subplot of a nurturing symbiotic relationship intertwined with this beastly horror as the wasp, from its perspective, is simply caring for its young the only way it knows how. We can stretch ourselves to wonder how this complex relational dynamic that includes such an amazing understanding of the anatomy of another creature, how to use specifically tuned hunting skills, and the use of biological equipment and chemicals to hijack and masterfully edit the behaviors of this creature to serve its own ends. How did this perplexing mixture of tender care and cruelty emerge from what appears to us as the chaotic depths of the cosmos? We could also wonder with even deeper amazement at our own fortunes – to have the capacity to gaze with some vague understanding of this marvelous spectacle, and perhaps with some effort, turn this same lens upon ourselves – to see a kindred spirit in that of both the wasp and the cockroach.

The wasp figured out how to do delicate and specific brain surgery, developed the skillsets to hunt, crafted specialized venom, excavated burrows into which it could walk zombie cockroaches, and had the presence of mind to anticipate other predators and take preventative actions to make sure its waspy aims were not thwarted. The wasp did this on the heels of behavioral momentum of millions, perhaps billions of years of biological evolution.[5] It didn’t go to school to learn these complex behaviors. It too is a zombie of sorts. It just does what it does as part of the wasp family business. Its life is not a morality play. It is unfettered by any sense of good or evil (that we know of) in its behavioral posture. According to our current understanding of evolution, the wasp’s life and that of the cockroach is not intentional. It is simply an expression of a confluence of various types of experiences that flow from the relationships within this broader environmental womb of the whole of nature.

If we view all biological relationships through the simplistic categories of the parasite that drains, the predator that devours, and the symbiotic relationship that mutually nourishes, we might see the same three relational dynamics in the wasp and the roach coursing within our own behavioral veins. If we wrapped this idea up in a poetic veneer it might look like this:

We’re the lion that stalks and feeds upon the weakened prey
and we’re the lamb who falls and bleeds at its hands this day

Like fatty chunks of poison, the same parasitic-predatory dynamic clogs the veins of humanity’s capacity to move toward its most satisfied state of being. We are sometimes captivated by poisons that stupefy, oppress, wound and devour us. We are sometimes caught in the crosshairs of biological conspiracies that subjugate us to serve the ends of other creatures both inside and outside the human sphere. And like the tender nurture of wasp tending to its offspring, we also do whatever it takes to spawn our biological posterity – no matter what the expense or suffering is to any ill-fated creature that might be repurposed to serve our ends along this journey.

With our capacity to use the currency of abstract thought, we can examine the nature of the social landscape of reality. With this, we also have the capacity to see the relational connections between cause and effect with greater precision. Unlike the wasp, we can understand how our relationship behaviors connect to our experience of life. To hone in on this dynamic and its potential power, we can look at the fact that we wouldn’t know about the wasp if it were not for the symbiotic sharing of ideas between us that include everything from language and culture to communication technologies of various kinds. We also wouldn’t know that every relational experience we paint on our lives either nourishes or destroys based on whether it is symbiotically giving, or parasitically and predatorily taking in nature.

Everything we are in terms of “better off” experience-wise stems from some form of cooperative nourishing endeavor. Conversely, every form of poverty we endure stems from some form of parasitic or predatory relational element. With this vision we can decide which of the relational paints we apply to our lives, and in what measure. Through the precision application of this vision, we can intentionally craft an intentional experiential picture on the canvas of possibilities reality presents. Unlike the wasp, we can do more than merely reflect the blind currents of collected behaviors over time. We can exercise intention to cultivate a direction of our choosing. We can inspire each other with ideas and behavioral expressions that cultivate a more nourishing symbiotic relationship climate, and less of the experiential poverty that grows in the soil of parasitic and predatory behaviors.

To do this effectively, the first step is to have a clear vision of the cause and effect chain that shapes our experience. We must also know that whatever action we choose in light of this understanding must be carried out with enough strength, passion and perseverance to overcome the momentum of the behavioral seeds that were sown in our being for a very long time. Life, if it is to be intentionally lived, must be governed by fully functioning antennae and the capacity to move of our own volition, and disciplined actions that correspond with that vision. This precision sting, in the form of sharing these ideas, is intended to contribute to the visionary foundation we need to enable that intentional move.



[1] Also called the emerald cockroach wasp, or Ampulex compressa.

[2] The first sting is delivered to the prothoracic ganglion which temporarily blocks the motor action potentials that control the motor function of the front legs.For more Click Here

[3] It is thought that this may be to either replenish fluid in the wasp or to regulate the poison in the roach in order to prepare it to be a host.

[4] Specifically the antibiotic chemicals are mellein and micromolide.

[5] Depending on whether the wasp’s evolutionary predecessors and environmental partners are included in the view.

7 responses to “Intentional Life is Serious Business: Of Wasps and Stings

  1. The parallels that you have drawn are interesting to think about. I’m trying to parse the phrase “experiential poverty” as I’m not sure what that means. And yes, that wasp-roach relationship is creepy!

    • “experiential poverty” was meant to mean that our experience of life is diminished when we express predatory and parasitic behaviors. I wonder if there is a better way to say that. I do get a bit cryptic with words sometimes! Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Yet more evidence that reality is stranger than fiction! It is interesting to contemplate personal relationships in a “parasite/host” light, and think about changes that should be made…

  3. Pingback: The Green Study “Worst Job I Ever Had” Contest: 1st Place | The Green Study

  4. This is one of the most interesting posts I have ever read on wordpress. I would re blog it, but it would give too many friends nightmares.

    • Thanks for the feedback I hope you got something useful to apply to your life from it. I figure “What’s a few nightmares among friends if it prevents even more waking nightmares?” but I could be wrong. – Joe

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