Entomologists Discover Seven New Wasps — But They're All Real Pests

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 4, 2014 9:25 AM EST

A newly-discovered wasp that plays a significant role in the abundance of Aphids
Phaenoglyphis kenaii, along with six other wasps belonging to the Charipinae sub-family, indirectly play havoc with the human food supply. (Photo: Entomological Society of Ameri)

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Entomologists have discovered seven new wasp species — all of which are parasites feeding off of other parasites. Unfortunately, in so-doing, the wasps have unwittingly spared the lives of billions of Aphids — the most destructive insect pests on cultivated plants in temperate regions — thereby reducing the number of plants humans get to eat, lead researcher Dr. Mar Ferrer-Suay, an entomologist at the Universitat de Barcelona, told the International Science Times.

Ferrer-Suay and her colleagues spent some serious time looking at wasps at the Smithsonian Institution's and The Canadian National Collection of Insects, and described their findings in an article published in January's issue of the Annals of the American Entomological Society. They also found 16 wasp species — members of the subfamily Charipinae — until now not thought to be in the area known to zoologists as the Nearctic region, comprising Greenland, North America, and northern Mexico.

The subfamily Charipinae are all very small wasps, with smooth and shiny bodies, widely distributed world-wide. "In the Charipinae from the Nearctic region, I have identified the specimens for the first time," Ferrer-Suay told the International Science Times. "This subfamily has a very complicated taxonomy because they are very small wasps with very few diagnostic features. In this collection we found seven new species."

The wasps Ferrer-Suay and her colleagues identified and named are parasitoids, which are even meaner than parasites, because they inevitably sterilize or kill their hosts. But it gets even worse than that. These are hyperparasites: parasites who feed on another parasite. The writer and satirist Jonathan Swift wrote on hyperparasites in "On Poetry: A Rhapsody":  "So nat'ralists observe, a flea/Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;/And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em./And so proceeds Ad infinitum."

But scientists know that every creature — even hyperparasites — have a purpose. "The Charipinae play an important biological role in Aphid trophic relationships," Ferrer-Suay said. "They parasite the primary parasitoid that are already parasitizing the Aphid, so as a consequence the number of primary parasitoids decrease and the population of Aphids increase, so the presence of the Charipinae affect the biological control of Aphids — themselves, significant pests." In other words, the Charipinae allow the Aphids to thrive by killing their parasites.

The seven new species are:

1.      Alloxysta buffingtoni

2.      Alloxysta huberi

3.      Alloxysta neartica

4.      Alloxysta texana

5.      Alloxysta vicenti

6.      Phaenoglyphis jeffersoni (America's third president was a naturalist)

7.      Phaenoglyphis kenaii

"To determine to species level unidentified specimens is always a huge news in the entomological world," said Ferrer-Suay. "The knowledge about the different Charipinae species is very poor because not many entomologists have focused on them," she said, adding, "It is always important in science to discover new species." The researchers used stereomicroscopy (an imaging technique involving a microscope which uses light reflected from a surface rather than transmitting through it) and a field-emission gun environmental scanning electron microscope (which produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons) to help identify the wasps.

According to Ferrer-Suay, the field of science that encompasses the description, identification, and classification of organisms is getting short shrift nowadays. "Taxonomy is the basis of biodiversity, but regrettably this task has become unpopular in recent times." 

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