As some of you may know, I am in the planning stages of returning to school. I am hoping to start a graduate program in Biology within the next few years to study molecular ecology, evolution, and population genetics. I have already met with a potential graduate advisor and he has suggested that I find a species that interests me before I begin classes and research. After a few weeks of research and exploration, I believe that I have identified such a species.
The Bumblebee Wolf, formally known as Philanthus bicinctus, is a large digging wasp that lives in coarse sandy and gravel soils near the Rocky Mountains. I find it interesting for a few reasons. First, it typically nests in large aggregations. This means that although the species is solitary, the females nest close together. This will make finding large numbers relatively easy IF one can find the nesting aggregations. More on this in a bit. Second, these wasps seem to have a very particular soil preference. This has the potential for forcing population isolation, which, coupled with other abiotic factors, may manifest itself in differences between nesting aggregate populations. Third, as their common name suggests, they provision their nests with Bumblebees. As somebody very interested in Biodiversity, digging wasps can be seen as an invaluable part of a collector’s toolkit. As anybody who has used wasps for monitoring populations of other arthropods (spiders, caterpillars, beetles), it is obvious that these creatures are much better at finding insects than we are! Jean-Henri Fabre marveled that Cerceris tuberculata, a Mediterranean digging wasp that provisions its nest with Weevils, was able to find its prey when he himself had not seen a single one in any of his observations! I have recently become very interesting in Bumblebees and if this wasp can make my life a little easier, I will welcome its assistance.
The most difficult part of this project will be locating the nesting aggregates. Howard Ensign Evans noted that some sites can persist for up to at least thirty years. Evans and O’Neill also wrote about four nesting sites that I am hoping are still in existence. The first is just south of the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The second is near the southeast coast of Jackson Lake, WY. The third is near Chimney Rock, CO and the last is near Great Sand Dunes. It is likely that these populations are not in the exact location as they were during the studies conducted in the 1960s through the 1980s, but it is very probable that they are close by. I plan on taking a trip next summer (2018) in an attempt to find these nesting sites. When I find the nesting sites, I will take a few samples and excavate a few nests and hopefully find something worth studying that has not already been explored by Evans, O’Neill, Armitage, or Gwynne, the researchers who studies these populations before me.
At a minimum, I will get to see some beautiful parts of the country that I have not been fortunate enough to visit. At best, I find a species of digging wasps that I can continue to study through my graduate training. Not many people are studying digging wasps anymore and I’m hoping to change this.