Entomology students have located a wasp – not previously detected in Milledgeville and not in the state of Georgia since the 1950s. The wasp’s favorite food is a beetle known for destroying millions of ash trees in the United States since 2002.
The emerald ash borer, a tiny jewel-colored beetle, was found on the borders of Middle Georgia last winter but has not yet been detected locally. Destruction of trees is the main factor in determining the bug’s presence – but, by then, it’s too late to save forests, said Dr. Nathan Lord, assistant professor of biology.
Finding the wasp gives Georgia College an edge on early detection.
“Usually a forester gets called to a dead tree and pulls the bark and sees lots of beetles there. That’s how they find out the beetle has spread,” Lord said. “Once the destruction’s happened, the beetles have probably been there at least a year, if not two.
“We want to use the wasp for bio-surveillance,” he said, “so we can get ahead of the spread.”
The dusky-winged beetle bandit is the only known natural predator of jewel beetles. Students visited abandoned, overgrown baseball fields – knowing the wasp likes to tunnel underground in well-packed sand. This summer, they found about 30 wasp nests at Huley Park off North Wayne Street in Milledgeville.
Using white index cards with small holes to cover the wasps’ larger entry holes, students tricked the insect into dropping its prey. Beetles are too large to drag through the paper hole, so wasps abandon them outside their nests.
Several varieties of jewel beetle have been collected – but, luckily for Middle Georgia, none so far have been emerald ash borers.
“We’re excited,” said Caroline Fowler, a biology major from McDonough, who uses a net to catch wasps. She slides a plastic vial into the net and corners them.
“We’ve got it down to 12-seconds. So now we’re proficient. We’ve collected five wasps,” she said. “We think the wasp and the beetle have co-evolved together, and so we’re going to look at the opsin gene in their eyes.”
Using next-generation DNA sequencing and molecular research, students hope to discover how wasps use vision to locate the shimmery jewel beetle and how beetles find each other for mating. This information may someday lead to disrupting DNA patterns and the emerald ash borer’s ability to reproduce.
“They’ve found the wasps, and they found the beetles with the wasps, and we know where lots of nests are now,” Lord said. “This is where our research really starts to ramp up.”