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In insects, which came first: the stinger or the venom?

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 12:57pm

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Björn von Reumont
Components of the venom cocktail used by wild bees such as the Banded Mud-Bee (Megachile ericetorum) are evolutionarily older than their sting.

While arachnids like scorpions often steal the spotlight, Arizona is home to many stinging insects as well, including honey bees, velvet ants and tarantula hawks.

But which came first: The stinger or the venom?

A new paper in the journal BMC Biology might have the answer.

The study looked at hymenoptera, a diverse order of vital insects that is rife with stinging species.

Researchers began by isolating 12 families of proteins and enzymes found in most if not all hymenopteran venoms.

When they traced the ingredients’ heredity using genomic analysis and machine learning, they found many related genes occurred across the hymenoptera.

That suggests that insects share a common venomous ancestor that lived before hymenopterans developed stingers, and weakens the argument that venoms evolved independently in different insect subgroups.

Today, some stingless hymenoptera sport other tools for delivering biochemicals to a target. Parasitic sawflies, for example, inject substances during egg-laying that alter their host plant’s physiology. They do so via their ovipositor, a tubular or needle-like organ some insects use to lay eggs.

Many stingers likely originated as ovipositors.