The Drumming … Wasp?

By Danniel Arriaga

Wasps. Many run in fear and avoid these insects at all costs. What do they do for us? Anything? Do they make honey or wax like bees?

One thing wasps do is act like natural pest control. At least one species of wasp preys on almost every species of pest insect. Plus wasps don’t like to feed on our crops, making them great for releasing them in the fields.

But what are they like? What kind of lifestyle do they live?

I spoke with Jessica Thomson, an undergraduate majoring in animal science at Kansas State University, and an intern who is part of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship, held at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Thomson is working under the mentorship of post-doc research associate Jennifer Jandt in the ecology, evolution and organismal biology department under assistant professor Amy Toth, researching the patterns of development in wasps.

The GWC is a program that invites students who are 16 or older to come to Iowa State University and conduct research with distinguished professors, postdoc research associates, and graduate students. Students get a taste of life on campus and of what research is like for eight weeks during the summer.

“This work is helping us to better understand paper wasps from an evolutionary standpoint,” Thomson said.

Jessica is helping to solve a theory that the queen wasp makes a drumming vibration that could lead to the development of worker wasps. A wasp called the foundress creates the wasp nest and once mature will produce offspring, worker wasps, and then become the queen. This is where the vibrations begin, which could determine the offspring as worker wasps, who help the queen raise future offspring.

The foundress trills the outside of individual cells of the nest with her antennae, while feeding the developing larvae. Once the vibrations become less frequent, future offspring no longer become workers, they become future queens, and eventually leave the nest to mate through the winter, and find a new location for a nest.

Another part of Thomson’s project is to look at the gene expression and differences between workers and gynes (future queens).

“My project focuses on gene expression in Polistes fuscatus and Polistes metricus (North American paper wasps). I’m looking between different samples to see if they express the same genes, and if they do that means that the vibrations might have a big affect on how the wasps develop,” Thomson said.

“What’s interesting is that the worker wasps can reproduce and take over the nest if something were to happen to the queen. The purpose is more for the public to be aware and informed of how wasps react from an evolutionary standpoint,” Thomson said.

It takes courage for Thomson to step up into a lab with hundreds of wasps surrounding her. Especially if she goes in without a suit and only the protection of gloves when marking them with paint for identification. Precautions are taken like knocking on the door before entering, keeping the wasps in their enclosed spaces and taking a required sting safety session before working with the wasps. She doesn’t mind. Entomology has become an interesting part of her life.

Thomson grew up taking an interest in mostly music, playing instruments like the piano, flute and piccolo. After taking part in competitions and writing her own musical compositions, she reached the point where she was ready to head off to college. Even though she loved music, she decided to major in something she felt would be more beneficial to her in the future. She had a great passion for animals and decided to major in animal science with a pre-veterinary optional course at Kansas State.

“I discovered I had an interest in insects after taking a general entomology class. I worked with my professor often after class and he helped me with my insect collection. I just realized that there are so many insects out there, and people just don’t realize it,” said Jessica.

Thomson eventually decided to change her options in her animal science major, switching a pre-veterinary option to a bioscience/biotechnology, adding entomology as her minor.

Thomson’s future may look a lot like this summer’s lab work, extracting samples from the wasps and studying the gene expression. She hopes to get 24 samples analyzed by the end of her internship. Jessica plans on attending grad school and pursuing her interests in entomology.

All of the research topics in the GWC are diverse and different in their own ways, introducing students like Thomson to new sciences and careers in science. The George Washington Carver Internship program funded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has brought in hundreds of students to conduct research at Iowa State over the past decade. For more information, visit

Danniel Arriaga, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, is also part of the Iowa State University funded program, Science Bound, is spending his summer being part of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship. He is an intern in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Communications Office, writing news stories about the other interns, part of the GWC. This is just one of the stories he will be writing on the GWC student experiences.

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