Cowell Area School 2

Hello again awesome Cowell students! I have just finished sorting the second trap you sent me, and have some exciting news…

You found a microgastrine!!!

It may look like just a boring small wasp, but this is the treasure in the traps I have been looking for – whilst all the specimens you collect will go into the South Australian Museum to be used by future researchers, these little wasps are what I am studying right now.

These wasps are parasitoids of caterpillars, the females (like this one) use the ovipositor to lay their eggs inside caterpillars, and the baby wasps then eat the caterpillar from the inside whilst it’s still alive! The ovipositor is the long thing orange appendage coming out the abdomen of the wasp – the darker thing is the two ovipositor covers, which protect the ovipositor when the wasp isn’t using it.

My work is to find new species of these wasps and give them names, and describe them so that other people can identify and recognise them. I won’t know if this one is a new species until we do some more analyses – I will include this specimen (and any more that you find in future traps) in the study and let you know whether it is a new species or not!

This wasp is in the genus Apanteles or Dolichogenidea

Other cool things in this trap

There were lots of other interesting things in this trap – including a very pretty little wasp in the family Evaniidae (picture above)

There were a few of these little tiny wasps called chalcid wasps – they are in the Superfamily Chalcidoidea, I think the family Chalcididae.

This was a really large fly in the family Tachinidae – perhaps the genus Rutilia – these flies are parasitic (lay their eggs on or in other insects), and have super cool iridescent structural colours.

A live tachinid similar to the one you caught –
image from iNaturalist tjeales CC-BY-NC

There was also a new Order of insects in this trap, that wasn’t present in the last sample – a Neuroptera – a lacewing! This one is in the family Hemerobiidae – the brown lacewings. These little insects are predatory, and like to eat other insects like aphids.

A live brown lacewing – image by mattcampbellaus CCBYNC

Hope that everyone is enjoying being back at school after the holidays – and thanks for keeping the trap running!

Cowell Area School 1

Hello wonderful students at Cowell! I hope you are all well and had a good break over the school holidays. I received your trap samples in the post, and have started sorting through them – here is what happened to your samples!

One of your trap samples ready for sorting

The first step is to get the sample out of the zip lock bag, and into a white dish, which makes it easier to see the specimens.

Sorting your samples – part 1

The next step is to sort the samples to Order level. Order is the level of classification that puts all the beetles together, all the moths/butterflies together etc. Classification is how we organise and understand the living world – we sort it into different levels:

  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

For example, you and I are in the Kingdom Animalia, (which means we’re an animal) the Phylum Chordata, the Class Mammalia, (which means we’re a mammal) the Family Hominidae, and our Genus + species name is Homo sapiens.

Insects are also in the Kingdom Animalia, but the Phylum Arthropoda (meaning they have an exoskeleton), the Class Insecta (the insects!).

There are around 30 different orders of insects. The ones that were in this trap sample were:

  • Coleoptera: The beetles
  • Hemiptera: The true bugs (sucking mouthpart)
  • Lepidoptera: The moths and butterflies
  • Hymenoptera: The wasps, bees and ants (I sorted these three groups separately)
  • Diptera: The flies
The vials filled up as I sorted!

Once I pick out the larger specimens by eye, I then work under the microscope to sort all the really tiny things – which takes a very long time! Because of the coronovirus, I’m working from home at the moment – but thankfully could borrow a microscope from the University.

Here is my set up for sorting your samples!
Once all the larger insects are removed, there’s still hundreds of small insects in the sample to sort using the microscope!

There were lots of really cool insects in this first sample – I’ll show you some pictures of them!

This cute little beetle was in your trap – A LOT! I mean, there were nearly a hundred of these little beeetles!

There was a tiny, shiny metallic beetle that was very common in your trap – which means it is very common in the environment around your school. It will be interesting to see if they are in future traps, or whether they just happened to all be emerging/flying around during this fortnight?

I asked Ainsley (who is a Coleopterist, someone who studies beetles) who works at the Entomology department in Orange, NSW, to help us identify the beetle – it is a Chrysomelidae, perhaps something related to this one:

Eboo sp. posted by ellurasanctuary from Swan Reach, SA (CCBYNC)

These wasps are from the superfamily Ichenumonoidea – the large one is from the family Ichneumonidae, called the ‘Darwin Wasps’, because Charles Darwin (who first published about the theory of natural selection) wrote about them: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” They are caterpillar parsitoids, and lay their eggs inside or on the outside of caterpillars, so that the baby wasp larvae can eat them whilst still alive!

The wasps above are spider wasps in the family Pompilidae – The female wasps dig burrows in the ground. They then find a spider, paralyse it by stinging it, then drag it into the burrow where they lay an egg… the baby wasp hatches out the egg and eats the fresh spider meat provided by it’s mum!

Here is a pompilid wasp like the one you caught (probably a different species though) dragging a spider to her burrow. It’s a photo by iNaturalist user cobaltducks, used under a creative commons CC-BY-NC license

This insect is a hoverfly – whilst it might look like a wasp because of the stripy yellow and black abdomen, it only has one pair of wings (all flies have one pair of wings, whilst wasps have two), and the large eyes and short antennae give it away as a fly! Hoverflies are important pollinators of lots of plants.

Here’s a similar hoverfly alive, as it feeds from flowers – image by adel_plainsgirl

There were unfortunately none of the group of wasps I work on in this trap (hopefully in the second sample you sent me in the parcel, which I will sort soon!) but there was a wasp that my friend Ben Parslow, who is the Collection Manager of Insects at The South Australian Museum, works on – a gasteruptid wasp! These wasps lay their eggs inside native bees nests, and the baby wasp eats the food provided for the bee larva, and sometimes even the baby bee! I will pass the specimen on to Ben and see if he can tell us more about it!

Gasteruptiidae are super weird looking wasps – here is a photo of one by elusiveorchids
The metasoma (part of the abdomen) of the wasp has broken off and is next to it, on the left

UPDATE: Ben has identified your specimen as a species called Gasteruption longipes, and it is a male (we can tell as it doesn’t have an ovipositor, the egg-laying tube that females have that looks a bit like a stinger).

Here is what the female of Gasteruption longipes looks like- can you see the long ovipositor and ovipositor covers attached to the abdomen? – picture (c) Ben Parslow

Thanks so much for running the trap for me at your school – I will sort the next sample soon, and look forward to seeing some more samples this term!