Does Brachygastra mellifica (Mexican honey wasp) have what it takes to change public opinion about wasps?

The world of social insects has a lot to offer to the world, in one instance you have Polybia paulista, a South American species of eusocial wasp which is armed with a sting which holds chemical properties which can destroy or damage tumour like tissues such as leukemia, prostate and bladder cancer . This is relatively a recent medical discovery and further research is being conducted, with Dr Paul Beales, a researcher from Leeds University suggesting that this create a new area of cancer therapy.

 

However what other doors can eusocial wasps open for us, the public sees these winged marvels as pests and often believe they have no purpose in the ecosystem, food chain or pollination. However this is simply not the case for our wings friends. In order to understand this we must first understand the world of eusociality and what it means. Within the intricate and complex life on insects on the planet earth, most of its abundance is ruled by a categorised degree of work, in the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) there is a well organised degree of work within the beating engine of a hive. The queen, hater of sunlight but being the provider of life for the hive and  creating hives of up to 100,000 plus individuals collectively, the flightless bees, these will never leave the hive, will never  forage and will live for approximately 3 weeks before being replaced, their main job is to clean the hive and tend the queen and brood. Workers will also aid in this role but will go out and forage where as drones (males) have only one purpose and that is to fertilise the queen. On a mating flight she will only mate with three males and will return to the hive and never leave. Obviously these social insects provide our society with honey with varying bursts of flavour depending on what pollen they have been extracting, this honey offers lots of health benefits, for example it can help allergies.

Eusociality once went against the theory of natural selection when we take into account colony survival vs. individual survival. Social wasps belong to the order Hymenoptera, the family Vespidae and sub order Polistinae. The focus species of my research and this article will be the Mexican honey wasp (Brachygastra mellifica). This is a species of epiponine honey making wasp. This fact alone once told to friends, fellow colleagues and family has turned a few heads as people know very little about this species and stereotypically thing that bees make honey, excluding bumble bees.

Making hives of anywhere between 3500 – 18,000 individuals, they are thought to be the main contributors of pollination for the avocado in the home range of Mexico and some remote areas in Brazil. Brachygastra is a genus which has 16 species which all share a theory that because of their hairy heads, they could be the first pollinators of avocados, this was before honey bees were introduced. If this is true, what else have they pollinated and how could they be different from other wasps? Little is known about these chemical and morphological differences, this article will reveal the answers to a degree as there is no limit to knowledge. This organism is important for this reason, their populations become abundant in July and September which correlates with the flowering periods of citrus plants. This also correlates with a common citrus plant pest (Diaphorina citri) a problematic species due to the destruction they can cause. B.mellifica is a predator of this species which also supports the usefulness of wasps.

European wasps can be problematic as they will attack honey bee hives however they play a big part in conservation.

Wasps can be a pain for the honey industry and some farmers or the public, however they have a role in pollination, pest control, medical research and the future can reveal more about these winged insects. Every day new insects are being discovered and thus puts us closer to bettering our society.

Another article will be published soon, talking about the complexities within social insect societies, discussing chemical and morphological differences in workers, drones and queens with the focus species being polistine wasps and Brachygastra mellifica.

 

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Josh Brierley

Josh Brierley

Loves wildlife and has a vast hands on experience in wildlife conservation. Currently working with honey bees!

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