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Wasp collections blog

Megascolia procer, wasp.

The Museum holds more than three million specimens of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants and sawflies). From exotic species to familiar stingers you'd find in the garden, wasps play an important role in pest control and agriculture.

Read our curator's blog to find out more about the collections and why we should all love wasps.

Find out more about Hymenoptera research at the Museum

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On Sunday I helped with a workshop at the Museum as part of the the nationwide 'Big Draw' initiative. ‘Experimenting with observational drawing, algorithms and natural form’ was the mutant offspring of the brilliant artists Gemma Anderson and Prof William Latham.


We meticulously observed natural history specimens then drew them. Then drew them from memory. This was before we started mutating various fundamental shapes according to William’s FormSynth rules which then took a further step as Gemma introduced fundamental rules of symmetry and body forms across the natural world and we evolved these forms through random processes in a practice Gemma calls isomorphogenesis. Which sounds like an interesting way to spend a Sunday, and it was.


I can’t draw



Puffer fish - In real life they look much more like a bad pencil sketch than that mounted specimen would have you believe...


I’m rather embarrassed to show these pictures here. I hadn’t seriously held a pencil for probably 20 years and I was disappointed to discover that I can’t draw a nice curve, never mind sketch a dodecahedron. This took me miles outside of my comfort zone.



My attempt at drawing forms mutating according to rules of isomorphogenesis (this takes quite some explaining).


There were some seriously good artists in the room who produced some amazing drawings. But the principle is intriguing, even to the artistically challenged, such as me. My horribly drawn shapes evolve into weird and wonderful structures. There’s something strange going on, with parallels to evolution.


What does this have to do with wasps?


What’s the wasp connection here? The link is our collections at the museum. One of the pleasures of my job is to make the collections accessible to artists (I should point out this is only a small part of my job; I really am a curator, busily curating and stuff…).



Gratuitous wasp photo - Degithina davidi (Ichneumonidae) looking very welcoming.


Not long after I started at the Museum I was introduced to Tessa Farmer, who was an artist in residence for six marvellous months. Tessa took inspiration from the parasitoid wasps that I work on, and her malevolent little fairies adopted some of the behaviour of parasitoids in their quest to enslave and torment other creatures. Tessa’s installation in Hintze Hall (previously Central Hall) featured a stop-motion animation with brilliantly otherworldly sounds by Mark Pilkington, which created an eery atmosphere first thing in the morning, before the crowds filled the space.



Detail from Tessa Farmer's 'Little Savages' (2007), exhibited at the Natural History Museum, featuring a chrysidid wasp and an unfortunate fox (copyright Tessa Farmer).


Returning to Gemma Anderson, Gemma has had a long association with the Natural History Museum, reclassifying our collections on the basis of shared forms and symmetries, rather than the classic taxonomy that we use to lay out our collections. So Gemma would draw a wasp nest, with its arrays of perfectly hexagonal cells and juxtapose it alongside hexagonal minerals, plants and other natural objects in beautiful dioramas.



Gemma Anderson's Hexagon etching, featuring wasp nests (and other hexagons) © Gemma Anderson.



Hexagons in wasp nests: nests of Apoica pallens, a neotropical polistine (paper wasp).


This process was termed ‘Isomorphology’ by Gemma. The next step, which we were experimenting with at Sunday’s workshop, is the introduction of evolution from ‘bauplan’ shapes (fundamental forms), which she calls ‘Isomorphogenesis’.


The art of evolution


Anyway, Tessa’s fairies evolved, and they continue to evolve in interesting directions, displaying ever more complex behaviours. Gemma’s shapes evolve in surprisingly unpredictable ways. Recently I met Daisy Ginsberg, a designer and artist who is exploring the possibilities and perils of synthetic biology, amongst other things. I gave a talk at a workshop she ran but Daisy was really interested in how we classify our organisms, when I gave a tour of the Hymenoptera collections.


The way we lay out our collections on taxonomic lines, reflecting the evolution of these insects, has directly influenced Daisy’s Design Taxonomy, futuristic biosynthetic cars that evolve to work efficiently in different climates and for different tasks.



Cars of the future: Daisy Ginsberg's 'Design Taxonomy'.


This got a lot of attention at the London Design Festival. As well as the wonderful premise, these model cars look like really tasty little cakes.


Art and wasps


These artists, and others I haven’t mentioned, have taught me the value of observing. They are incredibly good at observing the details of the specimens in front of them. Hopefully I’m not too bad at observing: after all, I am a taxonomist, looking at tiny differences and describing new species. But fresh perspectives on the natural world are invaluable and help me see the value of our collections, and the beauty of the beasts, in fresh ways.


It’s lovely to see wasps in art; they obviously make good subjects, being generally beautiful, elegant and doing fantastically interesting things. But it’s also gratifying to see artists take inspiration from the organisation and philosophy of our collections as a whole. And to see that the idea of mutation and evolution is so compelling artistically as well as scientifically.


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).


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


About the author

Dr Gavin Broad

Dr Gavin Broad is Senior Curator of Hymenoptera in the Life Sciences Department.

Read Gavin's profile