Naked Ape Talk: Parasitoid Wasps – Mike Gates

Mike Gates, Hendrix Alum and USDA Hymenopterist has dedicated his life to studying a large group of tiny wasps called Chalcidoidea. These wasps are the most beautiful creatures in the world (Thurman, 2016). Alongside their beauty though is a deadly story whose basic plot line is a survival strategy involving laying their eggs inside another insect or plant, those eggs developing into larvae that consume their host from the inside out until an adult wasp emerges leaving a husk of a host behind.

Male (left) and female (right) parasitoid wasps of species Leptofoenus rufus collected in Arizona
Male (left) and female (right) parasitoid wasps of species Leptofoenus rufus, superfamily Chalcidoidea collected in Arizona

Finding these wasps can be extremely talented, “maybe it’s the glimmer of a wing membrane in afternoon sunlight,” Gates describes for the discovery of some of the smallest wasps in the collection which were found parasitizing the eggs of book lice. Aside from difficulty of discovery, the immense diversity of these wasps and how much is unknown to science can be overwhelming. Gates is tackling this diversity by engaging in multiple collaboration efforts both in the United States and around the world. In recent years, the Smithsonian has become the depository for insects and other critters from our national parks. This answers questions of what we are protecting in our national parks and how are those populations changing as a result of global warming or other modifications to their environment? One such project is conducted at Joshua Tree National Park in California and contributions to this project can be found on iNaturalist: iNaturalist

Gates is lucky enough to have found a job he loves. “This job is vocation and advocation rolled into one,” Gates describes. He travels around the world for collection and to teach the Hymenoptera Course with other scientists passing on curatorial techniques for wasps and building a larger appreciation for the tiny wasps he studies.

Trigonalid wasp and it's stapler-like metasoma (abdomen or hiney)
Trigonalid wasp and it’s stapler-like metasoma (abdomen or hiney)

Although these wasps can’t sting*, studying them can get a little dangerous. Gates recounts  on the show a time he was held at gun-point while trying to collect insects in the field, among other fun interests aside from his insect-related dedications On the show we discussed techniques and future implications of new technology like bioprinting and the global genome initiative. We also took some time to be thankful for our reproductive strategy by discussing the survival strategy of Trigonalid wasps. In a nutshell: thousands of eggs are affixed to plants which are then consumed by caterpillars which become the wasp’s primary host, the trigonalid then will only develop if caterpillar is already or becomes parasitized by primary parasitoid (wasp or fly). If another wasp or fly parasitizes the caterpillar host, the trigonalid *then* attacks that wasp or fly inside the caterpillar.

*A stinger is a modified ovipositor, or egg-laying organ. That’s right, stingers are female reproductive organs of wasps, but parasitoids lack this stinging modification for their ovipositors.

Gary Larson's comic, Ring Around the Rosie
Gary Larson’s comic, Ring Around the Rosie

There’s a lot to be done in insect systematics, the identification and description of insects. About 1.3 million species of insects are described, but high-end estimates of the insects out there are around 36 million species. That’s some great job security so long as the funding is available!  The main takeaway from this diversity however is a picture of how the world is really ruled by insects. For a single species, humans are dominant, but if all the ant species in the world were weighed, they would out weigh all humans by several orders of magnitude.

Perhaps they’re waiting for us, the great bellowing beasts, to destroy ourselves.


You can listen to the full show here!

Music played on this episode was picked by Mike Gates:

Gary Numan – Hybrid

Erasure – Stop!

Puddle of Mudd – Psycho

Led Zeppelin – Battle of Evermore

The full playlist of songs played on Naked Ape Talk can be found on the Spotify playlist: “Naked Ape Talk”


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