Collateral benefit

Bird disperses eggs of stick insects it swallowed

brown-eared bulbul disperses eggs of stick insects

Some stick insects are even more like plants than you might think at first glance. Just like plant seeds, the eggs can be dispersed by a bird, Kenji Suetsugu and colleagues show.

Stick insects are perfectly camouflaged: they do not stand out among the plants. Yet insect-eating birds are able to find them and will eat them. And that is the end of the story for such tiny animal.

Well, it may not be, Kenji Suetsugu and colleagues report. If an unfortunate female stick insect is carrying mature eggs, a few of these appear undamaged in the bird’s droppings, and some may even hatch.


The researchers, working in Japan, point out that the eggs of stick insects resemble plant seeds: they have the same size and colour and feel the same thanks to a hard shell. Hence their suggestion that the eggs might survive passage through a bird’s digestive tract like plant seeds do. Many plant species produce fruits that are eaten by birds or other animals; the seeds remain intact, are excreted and germinate. Is something similar possible for the eggs of stick insects?

eggs of stick insect after passage through a bird's digestive tractTo find out, they mixed mature eggs of three stick insect species with an artificial diet and fed this to a brown-ear bulbul, one of the main predators of the insects. Afterwards, they examined the bird’s droppings under a stereomicroscope and discovered a small number of intact eggs, and from some of these eggs a young stick insect hatched later on.

Such scenario is also possible when a bird swallowed a gravid female, the authors think. The youngsters that hatch after passage through a bird’s guts would have to find an appropriate food plant to live on, but that is always the case. Normally, a female just drops her eggs to the ground and does not provide any care.


young stick insect, hatched from egg that passed through a bird's gutsSo, sick insects not only look like plants, but they also exhibit a surprising plant-like trait: dispersal of offspring by birds, which is unique in insects.

Dispersal by an avian predator is only possible for species that reproduce parthenogenetically, for in that case females carry eggs that can develop without fertilization. A number of stick insect species exhibit parthenogenesis, including the species that were studied here.


Dispersal of insect eggs via a bird’s digestive tract is not entirely comparable to dispersal of plant seeds. Plants produce fruits that have to be eaten to disperse their seeds. In contrast, a female stick insect has no intention to be captured by a bird to have her eggs transported – by being camouflaged, she tries to prevent just that. But if she is unlucky enough to become a bird’s meal, it is a collateral benefit if some eggs survive and young hatch, if only a few.

The hard eggs probably have not evolved to facilitate avian dispersal, the authors suggest, but to decrease the risk of attack by parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in other insects’ eggs.

Stick insects are immobile. Thanks to the birds they may reach new places to live. An interesting question is whether distribution patterns in the insects, to be unravelled by DNA research, overlap with birds’ flyways; that would strengthen the idea that the eggs are sometimes dispersed like plant seeds.

Willy van Strien

Large: Brown-eared bulbul (tongue visible). Alpsdake (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0)
Small: stick insect (Ramulus irregulariterdentatus) eggs that passed through a bird’s digestive tract and a young stick insect that hatched from such egg. ©Kenji Suetsugu

Suetsugu, K., S. Funaki, A. Takahashi, K. Ito & T. Yokoyama, 2018. Potential role of bird predation in the dispersal of otherwise flightless stick insects. Ecology, online May 29. Doi: 10.002/ecy.2230

Nutritious two-component glue

Queen larva is firmly attached to her ceiling

Royal jelly, fed to a queen larva, holds her in place

A bee larva that is to become a queen receives large quantities of royal jelly. And that is not only because the stuff is nutritious, as Anja Buttstedt and colleagues show.

A female honeybee larva can become a worker or a queen, her fate depending on the food she receives. During the first days, all larvae are treated to the so-called royal jelly, a nutritious mixture that the nurse bees produce in their head glands; it is rich in proteins, sugars and fats. After the third day, larvae that will grow up to be worker bees are raised on a different diet. When they pupate, nurse bees close their cells with a layer of wax. But a larva that is destined to become a queen is fed on royal jelly exclusively; the nurse bees bring it to her in generous quantities. Thanks to that nutritious diet, she grows bigger than worker bees.

The royal jelly has still another function, Anja Buttstedt and colleagues discovered: it holds the queen larva in place.

And that is badly needed. The cells in the comb, in which worker larvae grow up, are too small for a developing queen larva. For her, the bee workers will build a special cell, a so-called queen cell or queen cup. It is not only wider, but also differently oriented: vertically, opening downwards. Therefore, her royal highness could easily fall out of her cell.

Buttstedt shows why that does not happen: the royal jelly, which the workers deposit on the ceiling, is so sticky that it keeps the larva hanging from the ceiling until it pupates and the cell is sealed with wax. The stickiness arises because two proteins, royalactin (the main protein in royal jelly) and apisimin, form long fibrous structures that make the jelly viscous.

The workers produce and store the proteins in their hypopharyngeal glands. The gland mixture is liquid, enabling the bees to excrete it. But when they deposit it in a brood cell, they combine it with fatty acids which they produced in the mandibular glands, and in those acidic conditions, the proteins royalactin and apisimin form a fiber network.

So, royal jelly is a two-component adhesive, as the authors conclude, serving as excellent food as well. It is just what a queen larva needs to grow up safely.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Honeybee, comb and two queen cells. Piscisgate (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Buttstedt, A., C.I. Muresxan,H. Lilie, G. Hause, C.H. Ihling, S-H. Schulze, M. Pietzsch & R.F.A. Moritz, 2018. How honeybees defy gravity with royal jelly to raise queens. Current Biology, online March 15. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.02.022