Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wasp Wednesday: Wasp Workshop

I recently had the privilege of leading a wasp identification workshop at the ultra-modern Eulett Center in Adams County, Ohio. The ten participants arrived Friday evening, August 26, at the nearby rustic lodge known as Rieveschl Chalet. Both facilities are run by the Cincinnati Museum Center, though The Nature Conservancy also occupies offices in the Eulett Center and the two organizations co-manage the Richard and Lucile Durrell Edge of Appalachia Preserve System.

All my “students” were enthusiastic and energetic in the field and in the lab. I gave an introductory lecture on selected wasp families at the Chalet on Friday night, and we looked forward to seeing actual living specimens in the rural and prairie habitats the next morning.

There are never any guarantees that one will actually find wasps just by looking, but my hosts Chris Bedel and MarkZloba and myself scouted out some nearby areas ahead of time on Friday. That paid off. The participants got to see the Katydid Wasp, Sphex nudus, nesting in the dirt floor of an old barn. We even witnessed one of the wasps fly in with her prey, a Carolina Leaf-rolling Cricket (Camptonotus carolinensis).

We also discovered caterpillars of the Catalpa Sphinx moth, Ceratomia catalpa, covered in the cocoons of the parasitic braconid wasp Cotesia congregate. These and other wasps we observed will be topics in future “Wasp Wednesday” posts, and images shared on my Flickr Photostream.

We convened at the Eulett Center for lunch, then went back out for a more field time at another location. There we collected cuckoo wasps (family Chrysididae), and observed a mating pair of thread-waisted wasps, Eremnophila aureonotata. Inside a barn we saw many old nests of the Pipe Organ Mud Dauber, Trypoxylon politum, and an active nest of the Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus. When wasps were not to be found, the sharp eyes of the group spied many other insects including bizarre caterpillars like the “Monkey Slug.”

The late afternoon was spent attempting to learn the complicated anatomy of wasps, and introducing “keys” as a way to identify wasps to family, genus, and sometimes species. Traditional keys are dichotomous, meaning that they are composed of a series of couplets. One reads each couplet and decides which of the two lists of characters corresponds to their specimen, then proceeds to the next indicated couplet. Eventually, this process yields a name instead of another couplet. Interactive keys are a product of internet technology whereby the user checks boxes that correspond to their specimens, then hits the search button to whittle down the possibilities.

Chris Bedel, in addition to having a wealth of knowledge about the local flora and fauna, is a fabulous cook. Dinner on Saturday night was healthy and delicious: Pasta with artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, black olives, chicken, and spices, plus a mixed greens salad, garlic bread, and brownies and ice cream and strawberries for dessert choices.

After dinner we played a game I invented called “Wasp/Not Wasp,” whereby students view two images on one PowerPoint slide. They must determine which is the wasp, and what the other insect imposter is. I complicate matters by sometimes showing two wasps, or two non-wasps. The whole thing seemed to be a hit, and most of the time everybody got the answers right.

I concluded the evening with a short lecture on wasp sleeping behavior.

Sunday morning found us afield again, this time in the Lynx Prairie unit of the preserve system. Mark Zloba had set up an enormous malaise trap days before, to help secure wasp specimens. A malaise trap is a tent-like structure designed to intercept flying insects. The “bugs” then try to fly over the barrier. Instead they are funneled to the highest point (at both ends of the trap in this case) where they drop into a container with a killing agent. This trap is often one of the few ways one can capture certain kinds of Hymenoptera, and indeed the diversity just in the one sample was amazing.

Before we knew it, the morning was over and it was lunchtime. After a leisurely meal, the students slowly departed to resume their normal lives, as if having an interest in nature and insects means you have a “normal” life. I had a great time seeing friends I haven’t seen in decades, meeting Facebook friends, and making new friends that I know will be lifelong colleagues.

Special thanks go to Stephen Pelikan who drove me out to the Eulett Center from the Cincinnati International Airport. Chris and Mark were exceptional hosts that made me feel instantly at home. They made modest demands, and allowed me ample time to explore on my own.

Do consider attending Advanced Naturalist Workshops like this, or simply visiting the Eulett Center on your own. They always welcome visiting naturalists, researchers and scientists who give them ample warning.


  1. Nice post Eric, wish I could have joined the group!

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  3. I should mention that Jim McCormac has a nice post about this event in his own blog.

  4. Kathy McDonald posted about the workshop as well on Midwest Native Plants, Gardens, and Wildlife. Thanks Kathy and Jim!

  5. That sounded like a great workshop, Eric! I wish I could be a part of it too... you should really think about international students next time on! ;)

  6. Aniruddha: I don't have control over who registers for those, and there is a limit of ten people. It is also geared mostly to the local fauna and flora. Still, I'm sure you would be welcome to go. It is definitely a lot *less* formal and intensive than the workshops run by the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona!


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