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News in brief

3 Posts tagged with the entomology tag
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Two species of wasp have been identified as belonging to a whole new genus endemic to the isolated Atlantic island of St Helena.

 

St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, is home to more than 400 species that can't be found anywhere else. However, the wildlife is under serious threat from development and invasive species.

Napoleon complex

The new wasp genus, named Helenanomalon in honour of its home territory, belongs to a family of parasitoid wasps - those that spend a part of their lifecycle on another organism that they eventually kill. However, little is known about the specific lifestyle of Helenanomalon since only a handful of specimens are known to exist.

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One of the new wasps species, Helenanomalon bonapartei

 

The most recent specimens came to the Museum following a collecting expedition in 2006 that included the former Head of Entomology collections at the Museum, Howard Mendel. On re-examining the specimens, and a couple of others at the Musée de l'Afrique Centrale, Museum hymenoptera curator Dr Gavin Broad assigned them to two different species in the new genus:

These little wasps belong to the family Ichneumonidae, a huge family with over 24,000 described species in the world, but with only six species known to have made it all the way to St Helena. That two of these species form a genus not known anywhere else in the world is remarkable.

One of the new species, Helenanomalon bonapartei, is named after St Helena's most famous exile, whilst Helenanomalon ashmolei is named after Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, who have led recent work in exploring and documenting the fauna of St Helena.

Lost giants

Islands like St Helena often host unique organisms that have evolved in isolation for millions of years. However, these species are also extremely vulnerable to changes such as introduced predators and habitat loss.

 

St Helena used to be home to the world's largest earwig, the giant earwig, which reached over 8cm long and lived in deep burrows. Only a few specimens of the giant earwig have been recorded, and several scouting trips since the 1960s have failed to find any living examples. It is now considered extinct.

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St Helena giant earwig, Labidura herculeana

 

Says Dr Broad:

The extinction of the giant earwig was a sad reminder of how vulnerable island endemics can be. There is still much work to be done on assessing just how unique the St Helena fauna is, and Philip Ashmole tells me that they have collected other potentially new genera of insects and spiders but the taxonomy of the groups concerned is difficult and there are few people with the expertise.

 

The native vegetation has been massively reduced by the usual pressures of introduced goats, non-native species, inappropriate agriculture, and so on. Restoring the native vegetation, particularly the seriously denuded forests, is the most important step in conserving the unique invertebrates.

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A Kickstarter project has launched to raise funds for a new app that reveals the beauty and diversity of the world's bees, using many Museum specimens.

 

1000 Bees is an interactive art project to raise the profile of bees and highlight their plight across the globe. While many people are aware that honeybee colonies are facing collapse, 'honeybee' is a term applied to just 11 species, and many other bee species are also important pollinators.

 

As the project creators Ana Tiquia and Callum Cooper say:

Wild bees are just as important for pollination and play a crucial role in ecosystems throughout the world. Many wild bees face similar threats to the honeybee: bee-killing pesticides, loss of habitat for forage and nest sites, and climate change.

1000 Bees aims to raise £90,000 in order to create the dynamic app, including an animation that flicks through all of the one thousand species in its gallery.

Enormous bee resource

The 1000 Bees app will showcase high-resolution images of bee specimens, many of which are housed at the Museum. As well as photographs, the Museum contributed information on specific bee specimens, including a couple of bees collected at least 212 years ago and a giant bee collected by noted naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

 

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A giant carpenter bee, Xylocopa perforator, collected by Alfred Russel Wallace on the island of Timor.

 

 

Museum bee curator David Notton said:

As a curator, art projects aren’t my core work but it’s nice to have one now and again, as it gets the collection to new audiences and realises the wider cultural value of the collection.

There are over 20,000 species of bee in the world, but Notton's favourite is probably a rare species he recently managed to find on Blackheath in southeast London called the shrill carder bee. Described by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust as 'probably the UK's rarest species of bumblebee', it is one of 90 bee species found on Blackheath and was spotted by Notton while intensively surveying the area for bees during 2014.

 

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Sub-millimetre-sized wasp discovered in scientist's son's playground.

 

Museum wasp expert Dr Andrew Polaszek has identified a new species of tiny wasp living inside whiteflies on a tree in his son's playground in Sevenoaks, Kent.

 

The wasp is a parasitoid. While true parasites depend on other organisms their whole lives, parasitoids just lay their eggs in other organisms. The larvae of newly discovered wasp, named Encarsia harrisoni, are born inside whiteflies and eat their way out.

 

It was the whiteflies on a maple tree in the playground that alerted Dr Polaszek to the presence of the wasp:

 

'I noticed some of the whiteflies looked slightly different to the others so I took them to the laboratory. When I saw the wasp inside I knew it looked different to anything I'd seen before.'

 

 

 

Not a tourist

 

Dr Polaszek made the discovery five years ago, but there was a lot of work to do to define it as a new species. Even more surprising to Dr Polaszek is that the new species is native to the UK.

 

'I thought it might be a species from Northern Europe that had come over to the UK. I was really surprised when I realised it was native to the UK and was previously unknown. Finding an undiscovered insect in the rainforests of Borneo is relatively easy but the fauna of England is some of the most studied in the world so to find something new here is a real thrill, and makes it even closer to my heart.'

 

In those five years Dr Polaszek has been regularly collecting the new wasp, but has never found a male, suggesting that females can lay eggs without them. This is similar to other parasitoid wasps, such as the related Encarsia formosa.

 

What's in a name

 

The new species is named after local scientist Dr David Harrison, chairman of the Harrison Institute that promotes taxonomic research to support biodiversity studies and conservation. The institute is only a few hundred yards from the trees where Encarsia harrisoni was discovered.

 

Dr Harrison has a few species named after him, but finds the new wasp especially intriguing:

 

'I now have a flea, a bug, a sand cat and a wasp named after me, which is obviously quite an honour. Dr Polaszek's wasp is a particularly interesting one - it was found right here in Sevenoaks just a few hundred yards from my home.'