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Genetic journey of the common wasp revealed through citizen science

A comprehensive study is shedding light on the common wasp’s remarkable ability to proliferate across the UK.

The research, led by experts from University College London in partnership with the Big Wasp Survey, has uncovered the genetic journey of the common wasp, Vespula vulgaris.

The Big Wasp Survey, which thrives on the contributions of amateur citizen scientists, has been running since 2017 under the Royal Entomological Society

The simple yet effective methodology involves enticing wasps into homemade traps using beer. Initially, the amateur researchers sent the captured wasps for analysis, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the identification process to a more digital format using online videos.

Focus of the study 

Out of thousands of samples sent in during the survey’s initial years, the UCL team zeroed in on 393 wasp samples. These samples were meticulously compared to identify genetic variances and similarities.

Study lead author Iona Cunningham-Eurich is an expert in the UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UCL Biosciences, and the Natural History Museum). 

“Vespula vulgaris is one of the most familiar wasps to most of us in the UK, as we very commonly see it in late summer,” said Cunningham-Eurich.

“Despite the wasp being ubiquitous in Britain, a lot of research has been conducted outside of its native range, so this study is important in establishing a baseline of information about the common wasp’s ecology and dispersal behaviors at home.”

Remarkable dispersal capabilities

“By finding a single, intermixing population across Britain, our findings add to evidence that the common wasp is very good at spreading across the landscape, which may be because the queens are able to fly great distances, either on their own steam, aided by the wind, or accidentally transported by people,” explained Cunningham-Eurich.

While the genetic results demonstrated a united wasp population across Britain, there was a notable exception found in Northern Ireland. Here, the wasp’s genetic code was distinctly different, emphasizing the species’ remarkable dispersal capabilities.

The value of citizen science 

Study co-author Professor Adam Hart of the University of Gloucestershire is a co-founder of the Big Wasp Survey.

“Our study showcases the potentially immense value of citizen science projects. Even though the samples were simply and inexpertly preserved, we were still able to conduct advanced genetic analyses and yield very useful findings,” said Professor Hart. 

“We are very grateful to our citizen scientists, as this could not have been achieved without people willing to volunteer their time to contribute to scientific research.”

Study implications 

In just five years, an astounding 3,389 individuals engaged in the Big Wasp Survey, contributing over 62,000 wasp samples. The resulting information is impressively reliable, comparing favorably with expert-generated data from a 40-year period. 

This treasure trove of data continues to offer fresh perspectives into the diversity and spread of social wasp species across the UK. 

Furthermore, the survey helps to monitor the status of the yellow-legged Asian hornet, an invasive species known to occasionally visit the UK.

“Wasps are incredibly important as natural pest controllers and pollinators, so it’s very exciting that we’re able to improve our understanding of this common and fascinating insect with the support of citizen scientists, while also giving them the opportunity to get better acquainted with wasps, and see this much maligned insect in a different light,” said study senior author and co-founder of the Big Wasp Survey, Professor Seirian Sumner.


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