Are Braconid Wasps Dangerous? A Quick Safety Guide

Braconid wasps are often thought of as dangerous insects, but in reality, they play a vital role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. These tiny wasps belong to the Braconidae family, with over 400 known species found worldwide.

They act as natural enemies to various phytophagous insects, many of which cause damage to crops and plants.

These parasitoid wasps, such as Cotesia congregata, are a form of biological control, injecting their eggs into host insects. When the larvae hatch, they consume the host from the inside, eventually killing it.

This process, although gruesome, helps regulate pest populations and protect plants. While their role in controlling pests may be appreciated, many people still wonder if braconid wasps pose any danger to humans.

The good news is that these wasps are not known to be aggressive toward humans and pose little to no threat. They are primarily focused on finding hosts for their eggs and have no interest in stinging people.

A Braconid wasp on a fly swatter

Understanding Braconid Wasps

Braconidae Family

The Braconidae family is a part of the order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, bees, and ants. Specifically, braconid wasps belong to the superfamily Ichneumonoidea, alongside ichneumonid wasps.

Some key features of braconid wasps include:

  • Tiny size, often unnoticed
  • Efficient parasitoids
  • Widespread distribution

Life Cycle of Braconid Wasp

The life cycle of a braconid wasp typically involves parasitism, often targeting Lepidoptera (caterpillars). A braconid wasp female will lay her eggs inside the host insect, such as a tomato hornworm.

The wasp larvae then feed on the insides of their host, eventually pupating in silken cocoons attached to the host or nearby.

Diversity of Species

With over 400 known species, the family Braconidae is considered one of the most species-rich families in the animal kingdom. These species vary in their host preferences and parasitism methods.

Examples of braconid wasp species and their target hosts:

Comparison between Braconidae and Ichneumonidae families:

Feature Braconidae Ichneumonidae
Superfamily Ichneumonoidea Ichneumonoidea
Order Hymenoptera Hymenoptera
Method Parasitism Parasitism
Host preferences Lepidoptera Various insects

These unique characteristics make braconid wasps valuable allies for gardeners and farmers searching for natural pest control methods.

The Braconid Wasp and Its Hosts

Host Identification

The Braconid wasp is a parasitoid that targets specific host insects. To identify its host, the adult female uses her ovipositor to inject eggs into the host.

  • Skilled at detecting host insects
  • Utilizes chemical cues to find hosts

Host Insects and Their Role

Braconid wasps have a diverse range of host insects, including:

  • Aphids
  • Caterpillars
  • Hornworms
  • Tomato hornworms
  • Moths
  • Butterflies
  • Sawflies
  • Beetles

Host insects play a crucial role in the wasp’s life cycle:

  1. Host as a food source: The wasp larvae feed on the host insect’s tissues, eventually causing its death.
  2. Host as a location for development: The wasp larvae continue to mature within the host insect, utilizing it as a safe environment.

Braconid wasps are often considered beneficial because they control pest populations. For example, the Cotesia wasp is a common parasitoid of hornworm caterpillars found in home gardens.

Comparison of Host Insects

Insect Role as Host Impact on Wasp’s Life Cycle
Aphid Primary food source for larvae Short development time
Caterpillar Environment for larval development Longer development time
Hornworm Accommodates multiple larvae inside Requires external pupation
Tomato hornworm Example of a common pest controlled Results in reduced pest population

Braconid Wasp Parasitism

Parasitoid Attacks and Stings

Braconid wasps are small parasitic insects, which are a type of parasitoid wasp. These parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside their hosts, typically herbivorous pests, to complete their life cycle.

Their larvae feed on pests, such as tomato hornworms and cabbage worms. Adult braconid wasps, on the other hand, feed on nectar, pollen, and honeydew from flowers.

An example of a parasitoid attack is when a female braconid wasp locates a host insect and injects her eggs into it using her ovipositor, a needle-like organ at the end of her abdomen.

The wasp’s eggs then hatch inside the host, and the larvae feed on its internal tissues.

Species of Ichneumon, a wasp relative

Parasitic Pupation Process

After the larvae have completed their development inside the host, they leave the host and go through their pupation process. Some braconid wasps create silken cocoons attached to their hosts, while others build separate cocoons nearby.

Here is a comparison of some characteristics of braconid wasps:

Feature Braconid Wasps
Size Generally small, ranging from the size of a pepper fleck to less than 1/2 inch long
Diet Larvae feed on pest insects; adults feed on nectar, pollen, and honeydew from flowers
Oviposition Female injects eggs into the host using an ovipositor at the end of her abdomen
Pupation Larvae create cocoons on the outside of the host or separate, close-by structures

Being natural enemies of many pest species, braconid wasps are considered by the agricultural and horticultural industries as biological control agents. They help control pests, protect crops, and maintain balanced ecosystems.

The Impact on Humans and the Environment

Benefits of Braconid Wasps in Agriculture and Horticulture

  • Natural pest control: Braconid wasps are incredibly effective at controlling pests such as caterpillars and aphids, which can damage crops and plants.
  • Low environmental impact: These wasps have minimal negative effects on the ecosystem, making them a sustainable option for pest management.

Braconid Wasps as Beneficial Insects

  • Pollination: Adult braconid wasps feed on nectar and pollen, playing a part in pollination, which benefits both flowers and humans.
  • Ecosystem balance: These wasps help maintain balance in habitats by controlling the populations of potentially destructive insects.
Benefits Examples
Pest control Caterpillars, aphids
Pollination Flowers, crops

Even though braconid wasps are not dangerous to humans, they may have indirect impacts on butterfly populations, as some caterpillars that are attacked by these wasps are the larvae of butterfly species.

Controlling Pests with Braconid Wasps

Using Braconid Wasps as Biological Control Agents

Braconid wasps are beneficial insects used in controlling pests. They are known as parasitoid wasps, laying their eggs inside the bodies of caterpillars, which eventually kill them.

Impact on Crops and Ecosystems

By controlling pests such as caterpillars, braconid wasps contribute to healthier crops. Here are their primary effects:

  • Limits crop damage: Caterpillars can be quite detrimental to plants, as they feed on their leaves. Braconid wasps help control the population of caterpillars, minimizing damage to crops.
  • Encourages growth: With fewer pests, plants get to grow in a healthier environment, resulting in better crop yields.

Conclusion

In conclusion, braconid wasps, are often considered dangerous but are valuable allies in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. They play a vital role in naturally controlling pest populations.

You must know that braconid wasps pose no threat to humans and are primarily focused on finding hosts for their eggs. Embracing the role of these tiny insects can lead to healthier crops and balanced habitats.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about brachonid wasps. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Braconid Wasp, we believe

Subject:  Unknown hymenopteran
Geographic location of the bug: southeastern PA
Date: 07/10/2018
Time: 04:35 PM EDT
Your letter to the Bugman:  Hello. I am the plant protection intern at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania and our arborist saw this insect fly out of a diseased Juniper.

Can you please help me to ID it? I am sorry that he removed the insect’s head. I took this video because it is still moving.
Thank you.
How you want your letter signed:  Jenny

Braconid, we believe

Hi Jenny,
Because of the coloration, what appears to be a long ovipositor at the tip of the abdomen, and the written description that it emerged from a diseased juniper, we believe this is a Braconid, a parasitoid Hymenopteran in the family Braconidae, which is well represented on BugGuide

We have an old posting of Braconids swarming on a grape trunk in California, and at that time, Eric Eaton noted “so few braconids are parasitic on wood borers.

”  We also have this UK sighting in our archives that we believe to be in the genus Atanycolus.  That genus is represented on BugGuide where it states:  “Parasites of woodboring beetle larvae, especially metallic wood-boring beetles (Buprestidae) and longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae).” 

Since your juniper is diseased, it is probably infested with wood-boring beetle larvae, the natural prey for parasitoid Braconids in the genus Atanycolus, so your arborist seems to have decapitated a beneficial predator and part of the solution, and not the cause of the problem for the tree, which is why we will be tagging the posting as Unnecessary Carnage.

If the tree does have a bad infestation of borer grubs, you might see additional Braconids emerge.  The female Braconid uses her ovipositor to deposit eggs beneath the bark of an infested tree or other woody plant, and the hatched larvae feed on the larvae of the beetles. 

Adults emerge after pupation, so it is an understandable mistake to believe the Braconid is a harmful insect when it emerges from the tree.  We hope the information we provided will score you a few extra intern points.  

Great. Thank you so much for the very detailed response. It was sad to see that a good insect was decapitated, although it was an honest mistake.
I was not there when it happened 🙁 I realized that my post still said video, even though I sent a picture.
I was unable to upload the video file to the site because it was too large, but I have attached it here. It is very unsettling, especially when the poor wasp’s wings move.
Jenny

Braconid Wasp

Thanks Jenny,
We were able to get a better still from the video to illustrate the posting.

Letter 2 – Gorgeous Braconid Dead on a Fly Swatter!!!

Subject: What that bug
Location: Louisville, KY
April 17, 2016 6:17 am
What is this bug?
Signature: Email

Braconid Dead on a Fly Swatter!!!
Braconid Dead on a Fly Swatter!!!

Dear Email,
Though we find the composition and color palette of your image quite nice, we somehow can’t get past the content of the dead Braconid on a Fly Swatter. 

Like their close relatives the Ichneumons, Braconids are parasitic on mostly insects but also on spiders and other arthropods, though they are generally very host specific, often to the species level. 

Some Ichneumons are capable of stinging, and the same may be true for some Braconids, but not ones with highly evolved, penetrating ovipositors like the one on your specimen. 

We believe your individual uses her ovipositor to deposit her eggs in the stem of a woody plant that is infested with the larvae of wood-boring insects.  The black and red color pattern resembles this individual on BugGuide, though we are quite certain it is a different species. 

We have to label this submission as Unnecessary Carnage, and we hope next time you encounter a Braconid, you will part ways unscathed.

Letter 3 – Braconid Wasp Swarm

Wasp? Fabulous site! Thank you in advance, too! These wasps (?) flew in last night (10/17/05) and swarmed all over just one dying fir tree, they weren’t on any other tree on the property, and they’re gone today.

There is a long, 2-3 inches, thin antenna-like thing coming out of the back end and they were using it to probe into the cracks of the tree bark.
Sharla Swinney
Willits California, Mendocino County,
California, USA

Hi Sharla,
This is some species of Ichneumon, a wasp relative. The females use that long ovipositor to deposit eggs deep in the wood. Ichneumons are parasitic wasps and your unidentified species was laying eggs that will devour wood-boring larvae that have probably infested the dying tree.

Fascinating image.

Eric Eaton’s Correction: (10/20/2005)
“The ichneumon swarm is actually a bunch of braconid wasps. VERY easy to confuse the two, especially in this case because so few braconids are parasitic on wood borers. ”

Update:  August 5, 2012
We are trying to clear up some old unidentified postings, and we believe this might be a member of the genus Digonogastra based on this BugGuide image.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Braconid Parasitized Caterpillars from Australia

 

Hairy caterpillar waiting to be eaten by hatching ?wasps
Dear Daniel,
On several gum trees in our yard there are these batches of white eggs, each batch bearing a paralysed hairy caterpillar. I don’t know what the insects in the eggs are, but am assuming some type of wasp will hatch out. In the first photo there are two batches of eggs, with a crane fly that just happened to be resting there. Kind regards,
Grev

Hi Grev,
It is nice to get an image from one of our most consistant identifiers of Australian mysteries. You are correct about the wasps, but some of the details are wrong. These are pupae of Braconid Wasps, not eggs. The eggs were oviposited inside the caterpillar, and the larval wasps fed on the internal organs, sparing the vital organs for last to keep the caterpillar alive as long as possible. Then the pupae form on the outside. There is no paralysis with Braconids. The caterpillars are dead.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

Leave a Comment