Wonderful Wasps!

Many people are wary of wasps, they like interrupting our picnics, they can look a bit fierce, and some have a sting in the tail, but it’s well worth getting to know this amazingly diverse group of insects. Our next Crunchy on the outside event for young people interested in nature, and insects in particular, is Wonderful Wasps! It’s at the Museum on Wednesday 28 December, 10.30-12.00pm.

We’ll be finding out about some amazing wasp species, looking at the Museum collections to see the fantastic range of different wasps in the UK, and making our own wasp models.

It’s free but booking is essential. To book a place please email hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

We hope your New Year resolution will be to look after our wonderful wasps!

Take a look at our article on fig wasps here: Fabulous Fig Wasps.

The Intriguing Ivy Mining Bee

If you look at any ivy during the autumn there is a good chance that you will see bees on the flowers. They may look like honey bees but they are more likely to be the Ivy Mining Bee (Colletes hederae), which has a very different way of living.

Ivy Mining Bees feeding on ivy

Ivy Mining Bees can be seen feeding on ivy in late summer and early autumn, when it is in flower. Large numbers of these bees are attracted to the flowers and, because the females look very like honey bees, people sometimes think that they are all sisters from the same hive. In fact, the Ivy Mining Bee is quite different type of bee. They are a solitary species and each bee will have come from from its own individual nest.

Ivy Mining Bees are the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year, right at the end of summer when ivy is flowering. If you live in Southern England, they will probably be a familiar sight. You may not have seen them if you live further north because this bee is a relative newcomer to the UK. They were first seen on the south coast in 2001 and have since spread northward throughout England and Wales.

Ivy Mining Bee nests are often close together

These bees build their nests underground, preferring to burrow into bare ground on south-facing slopes, which is how they get the ‘mining’ part of their name. They like patches of bear earth but may also nest in garden lawns and vegetable patches. Although solitary, they like to build their nests together, so the ground can be pockmarked with dozens or even hundreds of tiny volcano-like burrow entrances.

The males emerge first and compete with each other to mate with female bees. Often several males will cluster round a single female bee. Females excavate underground burrows. In the video, you can see a female bee carrying soil out of the burrow and moving it away from the entrance with her legs.

Female Ivy Mining Bee excavating her nest.

The female bees then lay their eggs in the burrows they have made. They overwinter in these burrows, protected from the coldest temperatures. The new generation will then emerge the following year

Identifying the Ivy Mining Bee

Female bees are about the same size as honey bees and can be slightly larger. They also have similar colouration to honey bees but have dense ginger hairs on their thorax and very distinctive orange/yellow stripes on their abdomen. The males are smaller and are very similar to other closely-related Colletes species. This makes them difficult to tell apart from other species, but if you spot a bee on ivy in early autumn, it’s probably the Ivy Mining Bee.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read about the Red-tailed Mason Bee. If you have spotted any bees out and about this autumn, why not ley us know via our Contact Us page?

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining.

The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen science project investigating the size of bees held in university and museum collections. Scientists want you to help measure bees using a simple online tool which will add your data to the project. The results will be useful both to bee conservation biologists and everyone interested in nature. Researchers will use these data to help understand why bees are declining. You get to see beautiful bees from around the world and help us save the bees at the same time!

You can join in by following this link: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/md68135/notes-from-nature-big-bee-bonanza/classify

Once you are on the site, we think it’s a good idea to watch the tutorial video first. You can do this by clicking on the ‘Field Guide’ tab (shown above). A video will then slide out from the left of the screen. When you are happy you know what to do, click the ‘Field Guide’ tab again to close the video. You can start measuring bees.

There are two steps. First measure part of the scale bar, to tell the computer the size of the image, then measure the distance between the tegulae at the base of the bee’s wings. Tegulae are structures that protect the wing where it joins onto the body.

We hope you have fun measuring bees. You can measure as few or as many as you like; it all provides useful data for bee researchers. If you’re interested in bees, you might want to take a look at our post on queen bees.

Queen Bees and Royal Jelly

As Britain celebrates the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, HOPE For the Future Community Engagement Officer, Hayleigh Jutson takes a look at the queen at the heart of every honey bee hive and find out why royal jelly is crucial to her reign.

Honey bees on honeycomb.

Social bees are species that live together in groups called colonies. These colonies are very structured, with different bees having specific roles. Social bees include honey bees and many species of bumblebee. A queen bee is the only bee in a hive of social bees that produces eggs. Larvae will hatch from these eggs and develop into adult bees, so the queen bee will be the mother of most of the bees in the hive.

A queen bee in a hive. Image credit: OUMNH

The queen bee governs the colony. Most of the other bees are female worker bees and nurse bees. Workers are responsible for foraging, caring for the nest looking after the rest of the colony. Nurse bees raise the queen’s offspring, who are also their sisters. All these female bees develop from fertilised eggs. Later in the year, the queen starts to produce some male bees called drones. These drones develop from unfertilised eggs. Their only job is to mate with queen bees. They don’t even feed themselves! Instead, the female workers have to feed them.

Queen cells containing larvae surrounded by royal Jelly. Image credit: Waugsberg CC BY-SA 3.0

Towards the end of summer, as well as producing unfertilised males eggs, the queen bee also lays some eggs in specially constructed queen cells. What makes these specially chosen individuals grow-up to be queen is a substance called ‘royal jelly’. This is a milky secretion that comes from glands within the heads of nurse honeybees. While all the bee larvae receive some royal jelly in the first few days after hatching, the one selected to be queens are fed large amounts of it from their larval stage to adulthood. A special protein in the Royal Jelly called ‘royalactin’ enables the larvae to develop ovaries so they can produce eggs and, perhaps become queen of their own hive.

Queen Bumblebees

Queen bumblebees overwinter underground, and are usually the first to emerge in early spring. When the queen bees awake from their long slumber, they are extremely hungry and in a hurry to start a new colony of their own. The queen begins by feeding on early-blooming wildflowers and tree blossoms, which provide her with all the nutrition she needs with protein-rich pollen, and high-energy nectar.

Queen Tree Bumblebee. Image Credit: Hayleigh Jutson

Once she has filled up on all the nutrients she needs, the queen will then find a suitable nest site. Different species choose different sites. She will collect a ball of pollen and lay her first batch of eggs inside it. Bumblees incubate their eggs, like birds do, and even have a bald-patch on their abdomens, to ensure suitable distribution of their body heat over their eggs. The queen builds a store of honey to feed from, while she does this. When they hatch, the larvae eat their way through the pollen and the queen continues to care for them, until they are fully-grown adults.

If you are interested in bees, have a look at our post about the red-tailed mason bee. She is a solitary bee who chooses a very unusual place to lay her eggs.

Hayleigh is working with the HOPE project team to develop and deliver a programme for working with intergenerational groups in the community and making the Museum an Age Friendly space for older people. She wants  “museums to be a space for all to enjoy and develop their sense of wonder and imagination, no matter what age they are”.


Fabulous Fig Wasps

Many insects are important pollinators helping plants to make seeds from which new plants can grow. One of these is the fabulous fig wasp. In this video fig wasp researcher Sotiria Boutsi explains the amazing life cycle of the fig wasp, and why without it we wouldn’t have any figs!

Sotiria Boutsi shares her fascination with fig wasps

Sotiria shared her interest in fig wasps with Crunchy on the outside while she was a Professional Intern in Public Engagement at the Museum of Natural History. She has a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology and is currently researching for a PHD at Harper Adams University on using genetic information to study how different species of fig wasp are related to each other.

You can find out about other amazing insects in the Insects section of the blog.

Update: So, are there wasps in figs we eat?

Sotiria’s video sparked some debate on social media about whether there are wasps in the figs we eat. This is a complicated subject, but the short answer is ‘no’. Many figs that are produced for sale in supermarkets and greengrocer’s shops are ripened without the need for them to be pollinated by insects. Some figs produced for sale are pollinated by fig wasps, but the fig produces a chemical that dissolves the wasps.

So, any crunchy bits inside a fig are seeds, not wasps!

Header image: Fig wasps, Philocaenus rotundus, on a fig. Alan Manson CC BY 4.0

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very successful group of animals, and ants are very successful insects, but how could we decide which is the most successful?

There might be different ways we might measure success. It is the most numerous ant? Or the group with the most species? It might be the species that’s most widely spread across the globe? Perhaps it’s the longest-lived, or the largest?

Successful ants

Ants are a very successful group of insects. The biologist E.O. Wilson (who died recently) estimated that there may be a million ants for every human being, but the truth is that we don’t really know. Although they are small, there are so many of them that they may make up a quarter of the mass of all land animals!

Scientists think that ants probably evolved from a type of wasp 168 million years ago. They became really successful after flowering plants evolved about 100 million years ago. We know this because ants appear much more often in the fossil record, and we start to find many more species . One of the oldest fossil ants is Sphecomyrma, found trapped in 99 million year old amber from Myanmar.

Micrograph of a fossil ant trapped in amber. Species undetermined. 50 million years old.
Fossil Ant trapped in Amber. Image Credit: OUMNH

Features that have helped ants to become so successful include:

  • Their social nature – ants in a nest are good at cooperating.
  • They modify habitats – most animals can only survive in certain conditions but ant colonies can change their surroundings to suit them.
  • Ants can use a wide range of food sources. Some species even farm – growing fungi or ‘milking’ aphids for food.
  • Defence – ants are really good at defending themselves and each other. They are strong, have biting mouthparts and produce acid. The origin of the word ‘ant’ means ‘biter’.
  • Some species form supercolonies – huge nests containing several queen ants. This level of cooperation and organisation help some ant species to be mega-successful.
The ability of ants to cooperate helps make them successful.

Which ants are most successful?

So, ants are very successful as a group of insects. Here are some examples of ant species that might be the most successful:

Most numerous: Difficult to say, but perhaps the Argentine ant Linepithema humile.

Widest distribution: Several contenders for this, but perhaps the fire ant Solenopsis invicta.

Most different species: The genus Pheidole with over 1,000 described species.

Largest: The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma gigantuem was the largest ant to have lived. The queens were 6cm long with a wingspan of 15cm.That’s about the same size as a hummingbird!

Longest lived: We think oldest individual ant on record in a laboratory was a queen of the species Pogonomyrmex owyheei which lived to be 30 years old. Colonies of ants can survive for centuries in nature, continuing through many generations of ants.

The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma lubei, with a hummingbird for comparison.
Image Credit: Simon Fraser University CC BY 2.0

The fact is, however, that every species has most of the characteristics that make all ants successful, so perhaps the most common British ant, the Common Black Ant, Lasius niger, is as good a candidate for most successful as any? It’s also worth remembering that entomologists think we have only described about two thirds of all ant species – so there are many more left to discover!

We hope that answers Noah’s question. If you have a question about insects or the museum you’d like to ask us, just write it in the comments or send us a message using the Contact Us page.