The Mississippi Hymenopterist


Until the last decade and a half, very little was known about the Hymenoptera of Mississippi, with the exception of those from agricultural ecosystems such as cotton, corn and soybean, and lately, the pine forest ecosystem. Heinrich (1977) flatly stated in his book on Ichneumoninae of Florida and the neighboring regions that it contained all the known information about Ichneumoninae within Mississippi, mainly because Dr. Clyde Sartor operated some malaise traps on his behalf in the vicinity of Mississippi State University. Until then, no systematic studies had been done on the group within the state. Distribution maps and records in revisionary studies of Hymenoptera, as well as other orders of insects, all too frequently show only blank spots on the map of Mississippi.

The situation exists simply because there has never been a Hymenoptera taxonomist in the state to deal locally with the order, and because, historically, identifications were obtained from distant taxonomists who may or may not have reported them in the literature - very often the latter. This shortfall is quite noticeable in researching names and distributions in the Smithsonian catalog (Krombein et al.,1979) as well as in other catalogs of species. There is a remarkable void where the records should also say, "Mississippi".

Mississippi, however, is not unique in this respect. Few states support wasp taxonomists except through academic channels, and then, usually only from an economic perspective. Interest in wasp taxonomy is sporadic and highly individualized. The only book treating solely the Hymenoptera of a single state is that written by Viereck in 1916, which is now mostly of historical interest, although for decades it was a major sourcebook for information about the Hymenoptera, of New England.

The bulk of the work remains to be done by amateurs and unaffiliated scientists with interests and skill in taxonomy of the Hymenoptera, working concertedly with the small handful of professionals who are available. Whatever work these people may do from 8-5, they should be encouraged as much as possible if they have interests in systematics of Hymenoptera. More is better, in this case.

The Mississippi Entomological Museum* (MEM; Dr. R.L. Brown, Dir.) is the principal resource institution for Hymenoptera research in Mississippi, and has greatly improved since 1980, now including 250 to 300 Cornell drawers of Hymenoptera, instead of the 10 or 15 trays of mostly useless and broken specimens of 20 years ago. A large backlog of specimens gathered from numerous collection projects, particularly the W.H.Cross Expeditions, is also stored in alcohol for future sorting and identification. And, new material is acquired weekly from various independent collectors.

Mississippi Hymenopterist was created to fill some of the gaps in distribution records, and to provide diagnostic and descriptive help and encouragement for students who might wish to identify one or a few Hymenoptera, but who don't require a world monograph or North American revision - always highly technical and difficult - for strictly local purposes. The articles are not intended to provide scholarly, in depth systematic treatment of groups, which can be found elsewhere, but to provide basic familiarity with specimens that are more commonly encountered in student and research collections , with special reference to Mississippi, and to highlight certain Hymenoptera that for one reason or another might captivate the collector's interest.

There is a lot of entomological research and teaching in Mississippi, and a great deal of rearing and collecting for faunistic studies, coursework, biocontrol aspects of integrated control programs, and a number of other purposes. As a result, students often ask very basic questions about something that should be well. known, but isn't.. It is hardly necessary to get down to species level for most of this; subfamily diagnosis is sufficient. Frequently, in fact, it is not necessary - and sometimes impossible to identify a species at all, especially among the parasitic wasps. The extent of a diagnosis depends entirely upon the student's level of curiosity and interest, coupled with the likelihood of achieving a reliable identification at the outset. And, not infrequently, we may be looking at an undescribed species.

The more recent policy of USDA specialists precludes identification of parasitic wasps unless accompanied by host data. Unfortunately, this also excludes large numbers of ichneumonoids, chalcidoids, proctotrupoids, and others, that are retrieved from malaise traps, pitfalls and pan traps, or various other kinds of passive collecting methods that are a mainstay of faunistic studies at all levels of research. Many of these excluded groups are identifiable either with or without host data. Some are not. At first appearing to create hardships in obtaining identifications, the policy actually provides academic advantage to taxonomists working outside of governmental programs, rather neatly dividing taxonomic research into economic and academic aspects. But private taxonomy has no such restrictions, and can incorporate either, although host records can be a definite asset, and are sometimes essential, for accurate identification of parasites.

One way or another, species identification is generally, expensive, requiring a good reference collection, stack of old as well as current literature, good equipment, and the skills that are required to use it - or access to professional specialists who are usually far too busy with their own projects to deal with outside problems, but who frequently, and happily do.

Many of the difficulties of studying Hymenoptera, especially the tiny ones, can now be circumvented by using new, high magnification dissecting scopes with infinity optics - actually a development of industrial microscopy - although I use antique microscopes for most purposes. The new microscopes can easily be coupled with TV or computer monitors, eliminating eyestrain, and enabling internet transfer of images, a decided advantage to taxonomists who work the internet. Good lighting methods are equally important, but can be managed in a number of ways, usually with fiber optics or Nicholas illuminators. In other words, most of the challenges in viewing and illustrating these sometimes tiny wasps are not as troublesome as they once were. Technology has made them accessible.

Throughout the series, I hope to present the most academically economical way of dealing with specimens and identifications, since it is so easy to get hopelessly, inextricably involved in some groups of Hymenoptera. In some superfamilies, very difficult genera are mixed in with those that are easier to study - and, if there is a deep hole, there invariably are those among us who will fall into it. The more difficult genera should be reserved for experts in the field, or set aside until the student becomes sufficiently skilled to manage them. Only time and a great deal of study, probably by numerous taxonomists, will help to resolve some of the stickier groups of Hymenoptera. It would not be surprising if some groups were to remain permanently unsettled, and in fact the idea of stabilizing the taxonomy of an order in which only an estimated 20% of the species have been described seems pretty far-fetched. There is much work to be done in this order of insects, and room for many students, each with his or her own talents to offer, each with at least some unique contribution to make, no matter how small or how large. But, like golf, tennis, or fly fishing, there are inherent, unavoidable expenses and difficulties that are not shared by the study of larger, showier insects.

The underlying philosophy of Mississippi Hymenopterist is to do more with less. It may take years, and at least a fair cash investment, for the amateur to acquire just the right tools, especially for microhymenoptera. Fortunately, for taxonomy, this is still a fairly simple array, consisting of one or two microscopes, storage boxes or drawers and accessories, along with expendable supplies. University departments of entomology are often helpful to taxonomists outside of their systems, usually in return for specimens and information. But it is a project that can actually be done at home, and that is quite a rarity among scientific studies, considering the expensive and sophisticated laboratories required for most biological research.

It is one of the more remarkable anachronisms of our age that we are blessed with a multitide of media for creating books, journals and other scholarly works, but we usually choose the most expensive - and not always best - option available for publication; in our case, large, expensive, and widely circulated journals. Although refereed journals are desirable for some papers, and wide distribution for a few ideas, for many studies, photocopy, desktop publishing, photo offset, and especially website, could easily change the volume and perhaps improve the quality of our output as researchers. Utilizing these methods, as well as more conventional means, It would be nice to see the Hymenoptera become as well known as the more popular orders of insects within the next few decades, however unlikely this may now seem. But the newest literature, taxonomic tools and publication options go far towards opening the order for study by a much broader group of students.

Rhopalosomatidae of Mississippi