Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 15, 2008

Waxing Poetic

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:39 am

A marvelous thing is the Waxworm/ To beekeepers it makes their heart squirm/ To panfish’s delight, / They’re a wonderful sight,/ But to call it a “worm” is the wrong term. 

  I begin my third, and final, installment in my Ice Fishing Entomology series with this pathetic little verse in order to justify the “waxing poetic” title. Waxworms are in a category apart from their fellow bait mates, the wigglers and mousies, because they do not reside with them in the refrigerator section.  No, my latest purchase of “Waxies” came from a container directly behind the counter. Jeff, the guy behind that counter, looked a bit confused as I pushed aside the cans of Pepsi in the cooler and asked about his waxworms.  “They’re here,” he said while reaching for a box immediately behind him at the cash register.

  My first lesson about wax worms was that they don’t need to be refrigerated.  They can be, but don’t do as well when submitted to cool conditions.  Up until the moment they are plunged into the icy depths at the end of a hook, they are terrestrial warm air loving creatures. Here’s what a pile of them looks like when dumped unceremoniously out onto the table. At fist glance, they look very much like grubs and bear a passing resemblance to the pale white rat-tailed maggots we discussed earlier.

  A closer look reveals something quite different.  They have legs – short and stubby, but real – and walk on them like they know how to use them. They also have a definite head end with a shield like patch behind the head.  Wax worms aren’t worms at all, they are insects. Specifically, they are the caterpillar stage of the Greater Wax Moth.

  As caterpillars, they possess 12 body segments and a head capsule.  There are three thorax segments and nine abdominal ones.  I’m sure you find that fascinating.  If so, you’d better hold onto your seats when I reveal that there are 16 legs on this fleshy little fellow – six are immediately behind the head, eight more are found beginning two segments down, and two more at the very end. That’s a lot ‘o legs to deal with.  Once they become adult moths, they only need to contend with six legs.

  Insects don’t breath through their mouths. Land living ‘sects breath through tiny holes in their sides called spiracles.  You can see these openings as tiny dots along the sides of the Waxworm.  The head end, aside from possessing jaws, also contains spinnerets for silk production. The sawdust medium they are kept in is often joined by a mat of silk laid down by the caterpillars as they roam about the place (see here as I lift a string of sawdust laden silk).

  Commercially these larvae are raised not only for pan-fish bait, but find a year round market as a pet food product. Caged birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even hedge hogs and sugar gliders all enjoy their fatty goodness.  My bait examples, as well as those destined for pet palpitation, are raised in a clean dry environment and are fed dry dog food, or Gerber mixed cereal, mixed with honey or sugar. This sweet tooth betrays they’re original position in the natural world as nest parasites in honeybee colonies.

  Waxworms are the scourge of bee-keepers. These moths specialize in invading weakened hives to allow their larvae to feast upon the bee cocoons, shed skins, droppings, honey and pollen dust. In the process the caterpillars burrow through the beeswax and weave silken galleries throughout.  An infected comb is a mess (see here).

  It is to the waxworm’s credit that they are able to resist attacks by their hosts.  Beginning with the second stage after hatching they make a pliable silken tube from which to conduct their business.  This silk barrier is impervious to the bees, so the caterpillar continually enlarges it as it develops. The old silk is eaten and new silk produced. Once mature and measuring 1 inch or so in length, the tube is abandoned and the caterpillar seeks a place to make a cocoon and pupate.

  In the wild, Wax Moths overwinter in the hive as a pupae and emerge the following spring. In captivity, the breeders only allow a few to reach adulthood – the rest being sent out as sacrificial child laborers.

  Fortunately, maintaining healthy hives is the best way to prevent an infestation of waxworms. The goal of any bee keeper is a world without waxworms, but that will never happen.  This parasite will never disappear from the scene because it is has found a niche in our economy. As long as there a hungry hedgehogs and ravenous Bluegills, the waxworm will live on behind the counter.

A caterpillar living with bees,/  Is in danger, one plainly sees./  One mis-taken move,/  Surely will prove,/  Quite deadly to one with sixteen knees!

1 Comment »

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    Comment by Cris Schnoor — June 23, 2012 @ 2:46 am

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