Monday, September 20, 2010

Aculeata Agonistes: Vespula alascensis, vulgar no longer

Ever wish you knew what that bee buzzing your flower was properly called? Or that hornet that won’t let you relax in the garden? Or that sleek black and yellow waspy thing on the goldenrod? Does it needle you when an aculeate hymenopter zips through your garden leaving you none the wiser? Of course, as Lewis Carroll’s Gnat sagely noted, knowing the names of insects is little use if they won’t answer to them. But that is so very B.G.: if we know a name, we can make Google talk for them.

So herein I begin a new series of posts wherein I will struggle to learn the names and natural histories of the stinging wasps, bees, and ants (Aculeata) that may frequent the Home Bug Garden. I think I’ve learned my lesson from alliterative day-of-the-week ‘regular’ posts. Rarely do Wildflower Wednesdays occur even near mid-week nor Sawfly Sundays on the Sabbath. Starting these series, however, has forced me to do lots of rewarding research that I would otherwise have put off for that mythical day when I have some free time. So this new struggle, Aculeata Agonistes, initiated on a Wildflower Wednesday a Sawfly Sunday another dreary Monday, will appear when the Muses and Chronos are in agreement.
 And what better way to start such a series than with a wasp where no one knew its proper name? That is the case with what was until recently the Common Yellow Jacket, Vespula vulgaris, described by Linnaeus from Europe in 1758 and reported from North America 79 years later. Or so most everyone thought until James Carpenter at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Travis Glare from Lincoln University in New Zealand unraveled the true relationships – and more importantly to us - the true name. As taxonomic stories go, this one is pretty exciting: full of names, invasive species, and even consequences of Mrs O’Leary’s famous cow. All of this is available free on-line from Carpenter & Glare’s paper (see below), but I will quote a few sentences that gives the species name to which our not so common yellowjacket should answer: “Bequaert (1932) also listed Vespa alascensis Packard, 1870, described from ‘‘Lower Yukon,’’ as a synonym of Vespula vulgaris. Packard (1870) is an obscure publication indeed, because most of the copies of the publication were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.”

You may have noted that my picture of Vespula (now the correct genus) alascensis is a bit blurry. That is because it was taken with my point-and-shoot not long after I got it and before I had any idea what I was doing (the wasp, however, is licking honeydew). All of the decent pictures that my wife or I had managed to capture of what we thought was Vespula vulgaris, for example, the picture at the head of this post, turned out on closer inspection to be the Common Aerial Yellowjacket Dolichovespula arenaria. The break in the middle of the yellow band on the first abdominal tergite is a good character for this species in dorsal view. And so the struggle with the Aculeata begins with a repeat of the lesson from the last post: it helps to know what characters are important before you start taking pictures.

Carpenter & Glare 2010 Misidentification of Vespula alascensis as V. vulgaris
in North America (Hymenoptera: Vespidae; Vespinae). AMERICAN MUSEUM NOVITATES 3690


  1. I love a good taxonomic foible.

  2. Looking forward to this series! I can't possibly know(at this stage) what characters are important for I.D before taking a picture, so my policy is to take the subject from as may angles as possible in the hopes that some of those characters will be visible. Not always easy...

    "Taxonomic foible" :) Good one, Ted!

  3. I am glad you are tackling the hymenoptera. Maybe you can help me figure out if I have wool carder bees in my yard. If I'm right, they are the aggressive little buzzers and seemed to appear after I planted a wooly lamb's ears plant in my garden.