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Wonderful World of Wasps

Exhibition Iziko South African Museum

(Life: Kingdom: Metazoa (animals); Phylum: Arthropoda; Class: Hexapoda; Order: Hymenoptera)

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Africa has a rich representation of wasp, bee and ant diversity with 65 of the world’s 85 families present on the continent. Ants and bees are simply wasps that have evolved social behavior and although they are distinguished by the lay person, both groups are in fact derived wasps closely related to other wasp families.

There are about 145 000 described species in the world with around 20 000 of these occurring in Africa. South Africa has about 6 000 known species, but the majority of species are still undiscovered and the true species total is probably 10-20 times higher than these figures.  These species play valuable roles in all ecosystems, providing important pollination services, controlling insect populations, and recycling nutrients. As pollinators, wasps and bees play a critical role in the functioning of any ecosystem including the maintenance and evolution of floral species richness. Many (in particular the ants) have the potential to play a valuable role as indicator species in conservation and ecological monitoring. Parasitoid wasps play a vital ecological role as natural controllers of insect populations, including those that are detrimental to agriculture, forestry, human and animal health, and have vast potential for use in managed bio-control programs.

All of these species make up the order Hymenoptera, which means “membrane wings”. Although many other insect groups such as flies and lacewings also have membrane wings, the wasps, bees and ants have a unique mechanism that couples the fore and hind wings together in flight. Many species have secondarily lost their wings as adaptations to their life style. Worker ants are an obvious example. However, the reproductive males and females of ants still possess wings and these look just like wasps.

The task of discovering and documenting the unknown species entails expeditions to many remote, unexplored areas of Africa, but also continues in our own back yards! Many species are only millimeters in length and this small size, combined with the high diversity means that new species are easily overlooked.

Specialized collecting methods and traps are deployed to sample these insects. Iziko scientist’s Simon van Noort, Hamish Robertson and Nokuthula Mbanyana are at the fore front of this discovery and drive the subsequent scientific research needed to name, classify and describe the new species. They also unravel the biology, evolution and ecological relationships of these insects.

Three of the many diverse ecological interactions of wasps are showcased in this exhibition. This information represents ongoing research currently being conducted by Simon van Noort. Many facets of these interactions are still not fully understood or documented. This research is fundamental to knowledge generation and understanding of the world we live in. Museum exhibitions are one of many ways of disseminating new discoveries to you, the public.

Web author Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum)


Citation: van Noort, S. 2018. WaspWeb: Hymenoptera of the Afrotropical region. URL: www.waspweb.org (accessed on <day/month/year>).

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