Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Parasitic Wasps (UK Entomology Seminar: Dec 4, 2009, Andy Boring)

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Every week, usually on Friday afternoon at 3pm, our department hosts a seminar. Last week, on Dec 4, Andy Boring was our speaker. Andy is a graduate student in Dr. Sharkey's laboratory. This was his exit seminar, and it was fascinating!

As a PhD student, Andy studied parasitic wasps in the scientific family Braconidae. Parasitic wasps are a little different than the wasps that most of us know. Parasitic wasps do not sting people. Instead, they sting other insects (& sometimes other arthropods, like spiders). When they do so, they place an egg, or multiple eggs, inside the host-insect's body. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the host, eventually killing it (yes, Alien from the movies WAS reportedly based on parasitic wasps!). This is common in the insect world: there are thousands of species of parasitic wasps, and each lays its eggs in a different type of insect.

A portion of Andy's PhD research focused on the ovipositors of parasitic wasps. Ovipositors are egg-laying devices found on the abdomens of many female insects. In parasitic wasps, the ovipositors are often long and thin--prefect for stinging small hosts. For many years, the mechanism of wasp oviposition was poorly understood. Andy's research was so interesting because he spent many hours dissecting these tiny stingers (they are thinner than needles!) and examining all of the internal structures. As it turns out, the ovipositors that Andy studied were made of three primary longitudinal sections. In other words, an ovipositor is actually three long, flexible segments that fit closely together to form a tube (imagine reassembling a banana from an empty peel!). Also located inside the tube is a series of small one-way valves that help to move the egg down--but not up--the ovipositor. And, when many parasitic wasps sting a host, they also inject venom and other fluids. Because of this, many ovipositors possess anatomical structures that facilitate the delivery of these fluids.

During his time here, Andy studied a bunch of other cool stuff about wasps as well. In particular, he discovered and named several different wasp species. This is actually quite common: Dr. Sharkey's students frequently discover and name new species of wasps. If you a interested in becoming a scientist, and if you want the thrill of discovering new species, entomology is the place to be. New insect species are being discovered ALL THE TIME. Hey Andy: if you see this post, can you write a follow-up post showing the total number of species that you named? UPDATE (12/10/09): Andy wrote a comment below about the insects that he named. Be sure to read it!

To learn more about wasp research in the Sharkey lab, visit the UK Hymenoptera Institute website. And you can learn more about our (free!) weekly seminar series here.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing how much time and effort goes into describing new species. I have helped describe 5 new species of the genus Maxfischeria (I'm unable to italicize within the comments). One reward for all the effort is that you get to pick the name - which is pretty cool. Here is a list and short description of the etymology for each species:

    Maxfischeria ameliae - named in honor of Barb Sharanowski's neice, Amelia. Barb's neice and this wasp are both from Australia.

    Maxfischeria anic - named in honor of The Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC) because they provided us with the specimens.

    Maxfischeria briggsi - named in honor of my good friend Reuben Briggs. Reuben is an accomplished graphic designer, and he's always been there to answer my questions about using Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. I wanted to recognize him for that.

    Maxfischeria folkertsorum - named in honor of Doctors Debbie and George Folkers. Both were professors I had at Auburn University. They were very influential as teachers, mentors, and just good people. George recently passed away and I am among many who miss him.

    Maxfischeria ovumancora - "ovum" comes from latin for egg, and "ancora" is a latin translation for anchor, so the name means egg anchor. The eggs of this species, and others of Maxfischeria, are modified with an anchor on one end, so the name represents this morphological feature.

    I've also been honored by my peers, who have named three wasps after me! One way to do this is to take the honoree's last name and add the ending -i. So there is Capitonius boringi, Coccygidium boringi, and Amputoearinus boringi. These wasps go about their business everyday, with no regard for the names we give them.