Citizen scientists reveal genetics of wasps in the UK

Thousands of citizen scientist volunteers across the United Kingdom have provided new insights into the genetics of the common wasp.

Using data and samples of Vespula vulgaris – a species of yellowjacket wasp – collected through the Big Wasp Survey, UK scientists conducted the first large-scale genetic analysis of the insect across its native range.

The new study in Insect Molecular Biology revealed that there is a single population of wasp across Britain, demonstrating its ability to disperse itself widely.

However, there was a slight difference between the genetics in the Northern Ireland population, suggesting that the Irish Sea presents a small barrier.

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,” says lead author Iona Cunningham-Eurich, a PhD student at the University College London’s Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, and the Natural History Museum.

“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 behaviours at home,”

“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, aided by the wind, or accidentally transported by people.”

The researchers say that monitoring insect genetic diversity has never been more important to manage the biodiversity crisis. Citizen science provides a tool to gather the extensive ecological data to do that.

The researchers analysed 393 wasp samples collected in the first two years of the Big Wasp Survey (BWS) an annual citizen science project established in 2017.

Participating members of the UK public hang homemade bottle traps in their garden for a week in late August to collect and identify social wasp species.

“Our study showcases the potentially immense value of citizen science projects,” says Professor Adam Hart, co-author, and co-founder of the BWS, from the University of Gloucestershire.

“Even though the samples were simply and inexpertly preserved, we were still able to conduct advanced genetic analyses and yield very useful findings.

In its first five years 3,389 people took part in collecting over 62,000 wasps. 

Senior author and co-founder of the BWS, Professor Seirian Sumner from UCL, adds: “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.”

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