It seems you can’t turn on the TV without seeing zombies these days but few people know their alleged origins. Down in the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, certain practitioners of the dark arts drugged their enemies with a paralyzing toxin produced by the puffer fish. The poison slowed the breathing and heartbeat of the poisoned people. They were pronounced dead and buried alive, then dug up, revived, and put to work as slaves. While they didn’t eat brains, the victims were so traumatized that they walked around like, well, zombies. Think about that on your next island cruise.
Today, while few of us have to worry about puffer fish poison, cockroaches are not so lucky. The emerald cockroach wasp, from the tropical regions of Africa, India, and the Pacific Islands, can turn cockroaches into zombie slaves. While most venomous predator insects paralyze their prey before eating them, that’s not the MO of the emerald cockroach wasp. Instead, the grizzly little bee stings the cockroach in the head. For a full minute, the wasp injects a toxic zombie cocktail into the roach’s brain. When it’s over, the roach can walk but its brain is paralyzed, leaving the bug unable to make its own decisions.
Although the cockroach is six times larger, the wasp grabs the roach by the antenna. It leads the roach back to the nest, pulling it along like a dog on a leash. Once the wasp has the roach where it wants it, it lays its eggs on the passive roach’s belly. When the wasp larvae hatch, they devour the cockroach like a frat boy eats a cheeseburger at 2 a.m.
Researchers have discovered that the wasp venom blocks a chemical in the roach’s brain that allows the insect to execute complex behaviors, like running away from voodoo wasps. There’s video of this stuff on the Internet if you have a strong stomach. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for cockroaches. Almost.