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OSU Scientists Collect Wasps

Ohio State University scientists are collecting wasps. They classify and study them, learning their evolutionary history and discovering new species. In particular, they collect parasitic wasps, which are important for agriculture as natural and sustainable pest control. Scientists travel the globe in search of these wasps, but they also do a lot of their collecting just around the corner.

On the north side of Kinnear Road in Ohio State University's West Campus, there are wasp traps. Behind some brush, scattered on the ground are about twenty yellow pans, filled with water and dead bugs.

"So here we have the yellow pan traps out in the field, and uh, the bugs are attracted to the color and fly into the water, and there's a little bit of liquid detergent in the water to break the surface tension, so once the bugs fly in, they can't get back out," says Creighton Freeman.

Creighton Freeman is curator for the Charles A. Triplehorn Insect Collection at OSU, and one of his jobs is to check the wasp traps every week. In addition to the yellow pans, there's also a small mesh tent, called a malaise trap. It collects flying insects and funnels them into a bottle of ethanol, making a sort of soup.

"Yeah, that's what we call it actually, bug soup," Freeman says.

OSU Entomology Professor Norman Johnson is the Director of the Insect Collection. He's an expert on wasps, and leads the effort to collect and document wasps from around the world. In particular, he studies parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in other insects' eggs. Once the larva hatch inside the host egg, it starts to eat its way out. It emerges as a new adult wasp ready to mate and lay eggs. Other parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the bodies of other insects. Johnson likens it to science-fiction movies like Aliens.

"Just change the scale from this huge alien that's living inside a human body to insect size - that's what we're talking about," says Johnson.

As pest control, parasitic wasps eliminate reliance on chemicals. In Ohio backyards, they help control populations of horseflies and moths. Johnson says wasps are important in agriculture, forestry, and controlling disease-carrying insects. California uses wasps to protect citrus fruits from insects.

"Control of those pests has been a multi-billion dollar benefit to agriculture in California especially in the citrus industry. It's one of the shining cases of success," Johnson says.

Johnson says identifying wasps allows people to use the appropriate specie for specific pests. No one really knows how many wasp species there are, but the number is ever-growing. Johnson says there are over 115,000 known species in the world, and at least thousands of them are in Ohio alone. He's put the growing database of wasps online for scientists and the public.

"We want to disseminate that information over the internet, so that people all over the world can get free access - well, free access to learn about the plants and animals that live in their own backyard," Johnson says.

The insect collection at OSU has about 25,000 wasp specimens, half of which are from Ohio. There are nearly four million total specimens in the entire collection, which is one of the country's largest for a university.

Freeman and Johnson's students collect wasps year-round from around campus. Right now, Kinnear Road is the only site. Using a net to scoop up the bugs, Freeman puts the specimens in a bag. He stores the insects in freezers back in the lab, which is just across the street. There, the bugs await documentation and mounting. But first, he refills the traps with dishwashing liquid and fresh water.

"So I just put in a couple of drops with the eye-dropper and top the pan off with some water " he says. He'll come back the following week to check on the traps again. But for now, he's done and heads back to the lab.