Mexican honey wasps bring researchers from London to RGV – Monitor

The saying that goes “Only in the Valley” happens to apply to another topic the average resident might not have considered — insects.

The Mexican honey wasp is of interest to a group of researchers from the Zoological Society of London planning to make their way to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time this week. The scientists are asking the help of area residents as they try to gather information about the insect that could have much greater implications regarding what we can’t live without — food.

South Texas is the only place in the United States where the insect is found, but the small creatures are difficult to find. So, the visiting research group wants anyone who thinks they might’ve seen Mexican honey wasps on their property, or elsewhere, to report nest sightings to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Center in Uvalde by calling Christine Thompson at (830) 278-9151, extension 231.

Besides the Valley, the insects call South America and Mexico home, and were first reported here in the 1970s, said Ellouise Leadbeater, researcher with the Zoological Society of London. Researchers study them in Texas because they’re easier to find than in Mexico, especially when trees here are barren because of winter, she said in an email.

Here’s what they look like:

>> Small, about a quarter-inch long, and black. They resemble flies, but have a couple of yellow stripes around the stinger.

>> The nests begin small, but can grow to 4 feet in diameter and contain up to 20,000 wasps. The nests can be high up in trees or in bushes close to the ground.

“My aim is to look at these wasps that are really quite different than honey bees,” Leadbeater said.

Leadbeater said she is part of conducting the basic science of studying the insect, while the information gathered will be used by others to carry the related applied science that leads to greater implications for humans.

She said a hot topic in England is the preservation of honeybee colonies amid a disturbing trend that has seen a dramatic threat to the health of the insects. Pesticides used by the agriculture industry are under scrutiny and there’s a push to find such chemicals that don’t damage pollinator systems like honeybees, she said.

The problem is called Colony Collapse Disorder and has also received attention stateside. The unexplained losses of U.S. honeybee colonies were reported beginning in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then, the agency has monitored the situation and developed an action plan.

Bee pollination bolsters crop values by the billions each year and at least one in three bites an American eats has directly or indirectly benefitted from the insects, the USDA said.

Leadbeater explained part of the goal is to find pesticides that don’t cause problems for honeybees. The idea is that if certain wasp genes work the same way as they do in bees, that’s likely true of other pollinating insects, too, meaning pesticides that don’t damage them could be acceptable for other insects. If similar genes are found between wasps and honeybees that might also mean not every pesticide would need to be tested on every single pollinating insect, Leadbeater said.

But, part of scientists’ interest in the Mexican honey wasp lies in the fact that while the homey they create is chemically similar to honeybees, there are actually not genetically similar.

They’re also the target of research because they’re the only wasp to make honey and do so on a scale large enough to sustain farms in South America. Most insects, besides the honeybee, make no honey at all, Leadbeater said.

Specifically, the team from London will study the genes that make some wasps into queens and others into workers, she said. All the wasps have similar DNA, but scientists are hoping to understand what gene is “turned on” when the distinction among the wasps is made, she explained in an email.

The transcontinental research project between the London Zoo and the university has gone on for the past three years, but focused mostly in Uvalde — about 80 miles west of San Antonio, Leadbeater said.

While researchers note that the wasps are usually not aggressive, they warn not to disturb them because, like honeybees, they will sting. They also warn that no one should try the honey from a wild wasp nest because it could be poisonous since the insects visit different flowers from honeybees.

Leadbeater said the researchers are hoping Texans, who’ve already proved themselves a helpful bunch, will be able to aid in spotting the insects unique to the Valley.

Jacqueline Armendariz covers law enforcement and courts for The Monitor. She can be reached at [email protected] and (956) 683-4434 or on Twitter, @jarmendariz.

Mexican honey wasps bring researchers from London to RGV – Monitor
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