Researching Pelecinids – Part 1

image of a pelecinus wasp

Wasp in the genus Pelecinus, image by Cynthia L. McLaughlin and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many years ago, arthropods were one of my greatest childhood fears. I was so petrified of bugs that I hardly ever went outside during the summer. Anyone who knew me as a child would never have guessed that I would someday develop a passion for entomology and a love for the insect world. I began to collect insects in little plastic jars, but my rudimentary “collection” might as well have been a dermestid buffet; this was long before I understood how to properly store, curate, and preserve specimens.

It wasn’t until my final year of high school that I realized that I could become an “entomologist” as a profession, a life-changing revelation. During the summer of 2016, I finally learned how to make a proper insect collection at the Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, where I enrolled in a week-long course on insect field biology. That autumn I started my first semester at Ohio State as an entomology major, commuting every day from my home in Westerville, Ohio.

I recently completed my first year in the entomology undergraduate program, and I couldn’t be more excited about my academic future. I have met so many great peers and faculty members within the entomology department, and I have had the chance to explore entomology in ways that my younger self could never have imagined. I joined my general entomology class on an all-day collecting trip in Hocking Hills. I visited the on-campus insectary and learned about rearing insects with Chrysalis Entomology Club. But perhaps the most enlightening experience I have had so far was my interaction with the Triplehorn Insect Collection. I participated in an internship at the collection during autumn semester, then continued to work there part-time during spring semester. This summer I plan to continue working at the collection, but now the collection has presented me with yet another exciting opportunity: working on my first undergraduate research project.

image of a June bug

Unidentified June bug (Phyllophaga) from central Ohio, image by author

I will work with Dr. Norman Johnson and Dr. Luciana Musetti over the summer to research wasps belonging to the genus Pelecinus. These beautiful insects may appear intimidating with their long, slender abdomens, but they are not aggressive toward humans and stings inflicted by their small ovipositors are rare. Their flexible abdomens are instead used to parasitize the larvae of Phyllophaga beetles, more commonly known as “June bugs”. The female wasp does this by thrusting its abdomen into the ground and ovipositing into the subterranean grubs.

My research will focus on Pelecinus polyturator, a species that can be found in areas of South America and in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, including here in central Ohio. One of the most interesting aspects of P. polyturator is that males are extremely uncommon north of Mexico but become much more common further south.

The goal of my research is to examine P. polyturator specimens from both northern localities and southern localities and determine if they are one species or if they are actually multiple distinct species. This can be determined using nondestructive DNA extraction and barcoding, which consists of using a species-specific genetic marker in a specimen’s DNA for species identification. I do not have any prior experience with DNA barcoding, or even molecular genetics in general, so I see this as an incredible opportunity to learn new skills that will benefit me throughout my entire scientific career. I will also get to learn first-hand how specimens such as Pelecinus wasps end up in an insect collection by going through the complete collecting process, from malaise trapping all the way to entering specimen data in the collection’s online Hymenoptera database.

At the conclusion of this research project, I plan to present my findings at both the Denman and the CFAES Undergraduate Research Forums. One of my main hopes for this project is that it can be used to illustrate the research experience for other students interested in undergraduate research, both entomological and otherwise.

As I continue to learn more about topics such as DNA barcoding, specimen collection, and Pelecinus wasps themselves, I will update this blog so that everyone reading can learn alongside me and watch the progress of my research in real-time. Keep watch for another post from me next week about taking photographs of P. polyturator specimens currently owned by the collection. I can hardly wait to share these images and the photography process behind them.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Chalcidoidea: Minute “Gems of the Woodlands”

Lelaps sp., parasitoid wasp (Hymenoptera: Chalcidoidea: Pteromalidae) from the Amazon Basin, specimen ID = OSUC 45851; image by the author.

Lelaps sp., parasitoid wasp (Hymenoptera: Chalcidoidea: Pteromalidae) from the Amazon Basin, specimen ID = OSUC 45851; image by the author. (original title: Unidentified chalcidoid wasp (Pteromalidae) from the Amazon Basin)

I have always been fascinated by insects, but it was not until, at age 15, I took a week-long field insect taxonomy course at the Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. There, I learned the conventions of arthropod collection and preservation and something of proper curatorial practices. Ever since, I have steadily accumulated a collection with pretensions made modest by the limited resources of a teenager; and collection and identification remain an exceedingly enjoyable activity for me.

Therefore, it was only natural that I gravitated to the Triplehorn Insect Collection upon commencing my undergraduate career. Sorting unidentified specimens was easily my favorite task there. Although the collection contains the full range of insect diversity, those specimens that I was tasked with identifying almost always belonged to the order Hymenoptera—often casually referred to as “ants, bees, and wasps”, but technically including far more taxa than simply those that happen to have colloquial names.

Being one of the four most diverse insect orders, the variety of Hymenoptera is considerable: and I encountered much of their phylogenetic span through this process, while becoming intimately familiar with Goulet and Huber’s tome Hymenoptera of the World: an Identification Guide to Families (1993) (PDF), the monochromatic line drawings within which—printed on thick, coarse paper—have caused hymenopterists to nickname it “the coloring book”.

As an exemplar of the many taxa with which I thereby became familiar, I have chosen to briefly discuss the superfamily Chalcidoidea herein. These parasitoid wasps (using what is a phylogenetically useless term) are one of those aforementioned many prominent insect taxa that have no name in the vernacular—understandable, given that the vast majority of these particular parasitoids are a few millimeters in length or less. (Indeed, the smallest insect known to science—the 0.13-mm.-long male of Dicopomorpha echmepterygis [Mockford, 1997]—is a chalcidoid.)

This diminution has also resulted in a lack of taxonomic attention from entomologists, and chalcidoid systematics is by consequence a frustratingly opaque matter—something one is immediately impressed with while attempting to identify the miniscule things: keys are peppered with qualifiers like “usually” and “most”, not to mention annotated with lengthy footnotes elucidating the exceptions to each couplet. The fundamental problem at hand, as Goulet and Huber point out, is that chalcidoid families are often defined by combinations of characters, as opposed to singular traits that are unique to that taxa and none other (synapomorphies, in cladistic terms). This has resulted in a superfamily littered with taxa whose boundaries are under constant debate (e.g., the Agaonidae) or that do not hold up to scrutiny whatsoever (the grossest wastebasket taxon of flagrant wastebasket taxa, the Pteromalidae).

Chalcidoids are hardly deserving of this neglect, considering their ecological and numerical diversity (they possibly constitute 10% of all insect species; Noyes, 2003). I would have impartially respected this significance regardless of my work at the Collection, but parsing through unit tray after unit tray of nigh-microscopic specimens representing untold numbers of species—each one a chalcidoid—gave me a concrete grasp of that abstraction.

I still have strong visual impressions of many of them: the subtly turquoise, spatula-shaped abdomen I swiftly came to associate with the Tetracampidae; the minute serrations on the inner rims of a stocky chalcidid’s femora, making its thighs appear like chitinous razors; the oar-like forewings of many an insubstantial mymarid, fringed with haloes of setae; the metallic, spindle-shaped abdomen that accounted for two-thirds the length of a sycoryctine. I am not the only one to have thought them often quite showy under sufficient magnification: Alexandre A. Girault, a notoriously verbose chalcidologist, spoke of the tiny wasps as “gem-like inhabitants of the woodlands, by most never seen or dreamt of” (Thomer & Twidale, 2014).

Suffice it to say, without my work at the Collection, I would not have seen nor dreamt of so many chalcidoids.


Mockford, E. L. (1997). A new species of Dicopomorpha (Hymenoptera: Mymaridae) with diminutive, apterous males. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 90, 115-120.

Noyes, J. S. (2003). Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Retrieved 5/18/16 from http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/chalcidoids/introduction.html

Thomer, A. K. and Twidale, M. B. (2014). How Databases Learn. In: iConference 2014 Proceedings (pp. 827-833). Retrieved 4/8/15 from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/47268/409_ready.pdf?sequence=2

 

About the Author: Zach Griebenow is an undergraduate majoring in entomology at the Ohio State University. You can read his personal blog on entomological matters here.