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Wasp blog

2 Posts tagged with the wasp tag

Every four years the International Society of Hymenopterists gather for a conference, in a different venue each time. This July, 120 or so wonderful waspy folk gathered in Cusco, in the Peruvian Andes.


Natalie Dale-Skey, Andrew Polaszek and I headed off from the Natural History Museum to the land of the Andean Condor (we didn’t see any) and the gateway to one of the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu (we didn’t visit).


The first important consideration, of course, was how many shirts to pack, given that we were also visiting a field station for a quick post-conference collecting trip at the end. One shirt per day, surely? Invest in a travel iron?



Apparently real travellers (i.e. Natalie) carry three shirts at most, washing them daily in rainwater, and are prepared to make new clothes from abandoned sacking and banana leaves. I am not a real traveller.


What happens at a wasp conference?


Andy presented a new, interactive key for identification of Hymenoptera families that his intern, Miriam Gurpegui, had created. Natalie Dale-Skey presented a poster on the wonders of our chalcid collection. And I gave a presentation on the importance of reliable data when trying to interpret distributions of parasitoid wasps; basically, mistrust all the data and most of the identifications. It’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine at the moment.


I talked about the potential for using museum collections and light traps for quantifying changes in the distribution of British ichneumonid wasps, concentrating on nocturnal Ophion and Netelia species, with an example shown in the maps below. But most of the specimens have been misidentified in the past, and almost none of the literature can be trusted, so it is hard work interpreting whether or not big apparent changes in range are real. I also pointed out some examples of spurious results in published studies that are based on rubbish published data. As scientists we need to be aware of bias in our data.


Ophion_mocsaryi_maps.jpgThe first distribution maps for a British Ophion (an ichneumon wasp); pre-and post-2004. Real range expansion or just better recording?


In the session that I chaired, I forgot only one speaker, so it was really quite a success. And we were able to fit him in at the end of the day anyway.


So what’s going on in the world of wasps? Big data are big. We saw a phylogeny - the evolutionary development and history of a group of organisms - constructed from 30,000 genes. There are new approaches to phylogenomics that should allow us to sequence thousands of genes even from relatively old, pinned specimens.


But taxonomy, ecology and morphological phylogenetics are all still active fields. Some of my highlights were a presentation on the manipulation of spider behaviour by ichneumonid parasitoids and some innovative methods of examining fossil Hymenoptera – yes, fossilised wasps, bees, ants and sawflies. The student presentations were of uniformly great quality, which put the rest of us to shame.


Conference chums


New collaborations were forged, often over coffee and cakes (we all put on weight), and of course over beer in the evenings. The altitude (Cusco is at 3,500m) discouraged some of the wilder over-indulgence (at least at first) but we couldn’t resist cocktails in the wildly inappropriate ‘Era Caos’, a ‘disco lounge bar’, apparently the disco cousin of A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milk Bar.

Era_caos.JPGEsteemed hymenopterists in their natural setting - Cusco's finest DiscoLoungeBar, shortly before being moved to another, even stranger room, to make way for people in suits, with more money.


For me, one of the highlights was meeting people I’d corresponded with and assisted. There was a large Brazilian contingent, testament to the funding for taxonomy in Brazil and the enthusiasm for working on their incredibly rich fauna.


Natural History Museum highlights


Other highlights for the Museum were John Noyes receiving (in his absence) the society’s distinguished research award for his decades of work on the Universal Chalcid Database and prolific taxonomic output, and Andy was voted president-elect of the society, taking over in two years’ time.


Bull’s testicles proved not to be a culinary highlight.



Curator of Hymenoptera in Stockholm, Hege Vårdal, and Gavin are the envy of the other hymenopterists, with their big plate of bull's balls. The perspective is correct: the glasses of Chicha were unfeasibly large (photo courtesy of Kazuhiko Konishi).


Guinea pig also proved unpopular but Alpaca was a hit. Pisco sours were even more popular. I think everybody was sick of pan pipes after about ten minutes.


Hymenopterists getting sunburnt.


An excursion day allowed some of us to add a few nice birds to our lists. Giant Hummingbird was, indeed, big. For a hummingbird.

Time for a wasp hunt


Of the several post-conference collecting options, we headed off to the Wayqecha research station, in the cloud forest of the Kosñipata Valley. Mainly because ‘cloud forest’ sounded rather cool. It was indeed cool, in both senses of the word. Nights were very chilly and collecting was fitful as clouds and rain drifted in and out of the valley.


Kosnipata valley.JPG

Clouds rolling in, Kosñipata Valley.


We were treated to Hooded Mountain-tanagers eating fruit above our heads and Amethyst-throated Sunangels (hummingbirds again) zipping around. When the sun did shine the wasps were flying and we managed a fairly good haul. At least for Natalie and I, this was our first experience of live Eucharitidae. These are strange chalcid parasitoids of ant larvae. Elegant but bumbling, an undescribed Orasema species is common at Wayqecha.



Lovely, bumbling male of an undescribed Orasema sp. (Hymenoptera: Eucharitidae) (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).


John Heraty and his students had managed to find its host on the first night there, partly through the ingenious deployment of cookie crumbs, but mainly through luckily uprooting some vegetation, revealing an ant nest with eucharitid pupae.


Most excitingly, there is a canopy walkway, a rather wobbly affair taking you through the tree-tops at the level of the bromeliads and orchids. Leaning over the edge and tapping the vegetation over a net caught me about five Hymenoptera but obviously had to be done for the heroics.


canopy walkway.JPG

Thrilling canopy walkway at Wayqecha.

collecting.jpg Collecting (ineffectively) from the walkway (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).


What do we gain from a conference like this? Specimens, obviously, although not all that many, from three days’ collecting. Much more importantly, we get to network, get involved in grant applications, spread the word about the work we do at the Natural History Museum, hear what exciting work is being carried out elsewhere, make friends, taste strange foods and feel like an appreciated part of a vibrant community of researchers, in a refreshing break from work. Now to put the renewed enthusiasm in to practice, back in London. After coffee. Or tomorrow.


light trapping.JPG

Light-trapping at Wayqecha.



And saying goodbye (reluctantly) to Wayqecha (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).


What's the point of wasps?

Posted by Gavin Broad Jun 25, 2014

This is the question I'm most frequently asked (at least at work). Does it have an answer? Not really. No organisms need a 'point' (there are no entrance exams in evolution), but wasps do impact on our lives in useful and surprising ways.


Read on to discover why wasps matter and find out more about some of the most wonderful species.


1) They are beautiful.


Camouflage, communication - especially communicating the fact that they might sting you - and being conspicuous in dark undergrowth are all reasons why so many wasps have striking colour patterns. Iridescent, metallic-looking colours have evolved many times. Black and yellow stripes are classic warnings to birds and mammals that they can sting, so best left alone.



Ormyrus nitidulus - a common British parasitoid of gall wasps.



Ophion obscuratus - nocturnal ichneumonid, common and widespread.



Nest of Charterginus fulvus, a South American paper wasp.


2) They are useful.


Wasps are not just here to provide entertainment at picnics. They help us to control pests that would otherwise damage our gardens and food crops.


Vespids are a large family of wasps that include familiar nest-building species you might see flying around your garden. Wasp larvae are fed on flesh, usually of other insects, such as caterpillars and aphids. So, wasps can be useful around the garden by eating pests (the adults just need sugar, they become annoying when they're out for themselves, as the colony collapses late in the summer). But these predatory wasps, though they are the most familiar to us, are just the tip of the wasp iceberg. Together with ants, bees, sawflies and many families of parasitoid wasps, they comprise the order Hymenoptera.



Vespula vulgaris - the vespid that everyone is most familiar with


There are hundreds of thousands of parasitoid species out there: these lay their eggs in or on other insects, which their larvae then eat alive. These parasitoid wasps are responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of insects, regulating populations, partly shaping the world around us by limiting numbers of vegetation-crunching caterpillars and the like. We harness this ability to find and parasitise particular insects by releasing some wasp species to control numbers of pest insects on crops: biological control. This saves us huge amounts of money.


3) They are interesting.


All wasps do something interesting. They attack other insects in sophisticated and often surprising ways. Every creature is, of course, potentially interesting (even beetles) but the intricate interactions of parasitoid wasps and their hosts is, you must admit, fascinating.




Cotesia glomerata larvae emerging from a large white (Pieris brassicae) caterpillar.


We know very little about the biology of the majority of parasitoid wasps, even in countries such as Britain, with a long and proud history of under-employed clergymen and country squires peering into bushes and sifting through soil for caterpillars. Here are two species from my garden, to illustrate the point.



Helorus rufipes, a wasp quietly going about its business in British woodlands and gardens.

The first wasp is Helorus rufipes. You don't get much more obscure than this. It's one of three British species of the family Heloridae, a family found over much of the globe but not one of the hymenopteran success stories, with only a small number of species. They're not very big and they are not very flashy but they do live in British woodlands and gardens and are quietly going about their business, laying eggs in lacewing larvae and eating them from the inside. This specimen was on the wall by my back door as I left for work one morning. But you won't find Helorus in many field guides or many online illustrations. Just one of many obscure families of Hymenoptera that fill our landscape.



What appears to be a new species of Netelia, an ichneumon wasp, found in my garden.


The second wasp is a species of Netelia, of the ridiculously successful family, Ichneumonidae. Ichneumonids abound, with over 2,300 species in Britain alone. Netelia is one of the more successful genera with a great many species found all over the world, including 25 species in Britain. This specimen was caught in the light trap that I use for catching moths in my garden, which is also a productive way of sampling nocturnal wasps.


For a while, I thought that this species was Netelia testacea, which is a name that you will often see online and in the literature, sometimes illustrated in field guides as one of the few ichneumonids apparently common and well known enough to be worth illustrating. There are many, many papers that reference the biology and distribution of Netelia testacea. Except that these are almost all wrong, and I was wrong.


I've checked out the identity of Netelia testacea and it's not what we thought. The well-known species usually illustrated as Netelia testacea is usually Netelia melanura and this species in the photograph, that I frequently catch in my garden, turns out not to have a name. So I need to describe a new species for one of the most common ichneumonids in my light trap, which is one reason these things are so interesting.


Further information