Wonderful World of Wasps

Finding new wasp species is Simon van Noort’s passion. He explains, “You have to be
an explorer. It’s one of the last frontiers of natural history. Wasps are so hyper-diverse
and there are so few taxonomists that I can go into your back garden and collect 10 new
species of wasps.” There are 145 000 documented species, but there is likely to be
one to three million wasps waiting for intrepid biologists like Simon to discover and name.
Once Simon discovers a new species, patience and pedantry is needed. Simon spends months digging through centuries of biological literature, often written in another language,
frequently Latin. As Simon says, “It’s a whole detective story.” He has discovered and named
nearly 80 species. The naming has to follow a strict protocol, but there are a few wasps he’s
given pet names to, like the Pycnostigmus mastersonae, which, because of its golden
colour, is named after Jill Masterson who died by asphyxiation after being smothered in gold
paint in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
Most wasps are invisible to the naked eye. To prove this, Simon shows me a specimen
collection. I see nothing more interesting than a bunch of pins stuck in a plastic container.
When he puts the pins under a microscope …wow! Suddenly two Kafkaesque creatures
come into clear focus. One has a long samurai-like sword pointing forward, the other has antlers like motorcycle handles.
These wasps are known as dry samples. Their journey to under the microscope has been
long. Simon spends at least two months in the field in far-flung locations, such as Gabon and
Uganda. Life is rough in the bush, but Simon revels in it. He lays traps to collect various
specimens, which are later stored in ethanol, and become part of the wet collection. This is
housed in a room that looks like a pharmacy store, packed to the ceiling with jars and test
tubes. Simon shows me one of his favourite specimens, collected in Uganda. What looks to
me like a jar filled with a disgusting tapiocalike substance, to Simon is a goldmine of new
Wasps look their best up close. Under Simon’s powerful R300 000 camera they reveal a
mesmerising display of colour. Their psychedelic appearance is due to the cuticle,
comprised of layers of chitin resulting in colour-refraction. Incredible to think that once
the doors of perception are cleansed – an effect which Aldous Huxley sought through
the use of mescaline – what is revealed is a visual landscape akin to wasps’ skin.

Wonderful world of wasps, until 25 September,
Iziko South African Museum, 021 481 3800.
(see page 52 for details)

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