Parasitic wasps use specialized needle-like structures, ovipositors, to drill into substrates to reach hidden hosts. The external ovipositor (terebra) consists of three interconnected, sliding elements (valvulae), which are moved reciprocally during insertion. This presumably reduces the required pushing force on the terebra and limits the risk of damage whilst probing. Although this is an important mechanism, it is still not completely understood how the actuation of the valvulae is achieved, and it has only been studied with the ovipositor in rest position. Additionally, very little is known about the magnitude of the forces generated during probing. We used synchrotron X-ray microtomography to reconstruct the actuation mechanism of the parasitic wasp Diachasmimorpha longicaudata (Braconidae) in four distinct phases of the probing cycle. We show that only the paired first valvulae of the terebra move independently, while the second valvula moves with the metasoma (‘abdomen’). The first valvula movements are initiated by rotation of one chitin plate (first valvifer) with respect to another such plate (second valvifer). This is achieved indirectly by muscles connecting the non-rotating second valvifer and the abdominal ninth tergite. Contrary to previous reports, we found muscle fibres running inside the terebra, although their function remains unclear. The estimated maximal forces that can be exerted by the first valvulae are small (protraction 1.19 mN and retraction 0.874 mN), which reduces the risk of buckling, but are sufficient for successful probing. The small net forces of the valvulae on the substrate may still lead to buckling of the terebra; we show that the sheaths surrounding the valvulae prevent this by effectively increasing the diameter and second moment of area of the terebra. Our findings improve the comprehension of hymenopteran probing mechanisms, the function of the associated muscles, and the forces and damage-limiting mechanism that are involved in drilling a slender terebra into a substrate.
- synchrotron X-ray micro-computed tomography