The Washp

Glorious accidents aren’t supposed to happen any more.

Alexander Graham Bell probably hoped the first words ever said over his new-fangled telephone would be profound and meaningful, resonating down the ages.

Instead, they turned out to be ‘Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you’, uttered after he accidentally spilled some acid.

Sir Alexander Fleming might easily have thrown out the petri dishes contaminated with mold, but decided to have a second look and discovered penicillin.

And Roy Plunkett was studying refrigerant gas when he came up with Teflon, after studying a white powder produced because of a faulty valve.

These sorts of glorious accidents aren’t supposed to happen any more.

Nowadays, new discoveries are supposed to be churned out of anonymous laboratories as a result of efficient – if sometimes dull – research.

But Chris Williams, a biologist from Wales working in Mayo, was waiting for a batch of flies to hatch in a jam-jar when he found that wasps emerged instead.

The parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside fly larvae, and the bugs then eat their way out from the inside.

The new species has been named Mesoleptus hibernica.

It’s nice to know surprises are still possible.

By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.


  1. For some of us, Ger, this news comes as something less than a surprise. I commend to you Godfray’s Parasitoids and Quicke’s Parasitic Wasps for those long winter evenings at the hearthside.

    Seriously, though, I’m grateful for this news and do intend to look into it further. Whether the wasps lay their eggs in larvae or pupae is a major distinguishing feature, even if it is from the pupae that the wasp imagines eclose. Wasps parasitise their prey in just about every way possible consistent with the flight of time’s arrow, except that I am not aware of any that parasitise the eggs only to have their offspring kill and eclose from the larvae or pupae (pure egg parasitoids exist in plenitude). But I would not be surprised to learn there are some such.

    It’s not just wasps, either. A surprisingly large number of flies are parasitoids, including some that dramatically pop the heads off ants. There are even some parasitoid beetles and butterflies. I once witnessed a fat larva emerge from the body of a big green grasshopper. I’m pretty certain it was a fly not a wasp larva (not least because it eclosed as a larva, not an imago, and because I later found some papers describing flies that parasitise grasshoppers, which they locate by sounding on their mating calls).

    Ehh… I’ve just realised that I’ve left anorak stains all over your website. Sorry about that. But this stuff is amazingly cool, you must admit.

  2. ‘For some of us, Ger, this news comes as something less than a surprise’

    Parasitic wasps aren’t a surprise to me. As I recall, Darwin mentions them. But this is the first time one has been found in Ireland.

  3. Now that is a surprise. Has to be down to nobody really having looked*, I’d say, because parasitic wasps are literally everywhere. Parasitoidism isn’t ancestral to the hymenoptera — it has evolved multiple times within the group. But it’s an evolutionary path these animals seem to enjoy taking — the vast majority of them are parasitoids.

    * Not exactly an unknown phenomenon. I myself once recorded the first and SFAIK only known instance in Hessen of Psilocorus simoni, a pholcid spider supposedly very rare in northern Europe. After conferring with some professional spider dudes, I concluded that the species is not so much rare as easily overlooked.

  4. But this is the first time one has been found in Ireland

    Actually, that sentence is surprising only in one of its possible readings. Looking into the story a bit, I find that this is not the first time somebody in Ireland has found a parasitic wasp. It’s the first time somebody in Ireland has found and formally described as a sp. nov. a parasitic wasp previously unknown to science. The former would have been astonishing; the latter isn’t really surprising at all, given that huge numbers of insect species (esp. of parasitoid wasps, may of which are tiny and difficult to collect) remain as yet undescribed.

    Props to Chris Williams. I can’t think of many things more thrilling than identifying and describing a sp. nov.

  5. At this point, I’d like to reproduce without comment one of the responses to the post on, which pointed out a missed opportunity in naming the new beastie, officially called Mesoleptus hibernica.

    I would have found the temptation to name it Mesoleptus ahernicus
    overwhelming. If he finds something even nastier – something venomous
    and brainless, for preference – he can name it after Iris Robinson.

  6. As a charter member of the “We Believe Bertie” Facebook group — and I assure you that nobody who joins this group has even in the slightest way a cynical motivation — I’m afraid I can’t join in your fun. Though if the tiny monster were named Mesoleptus arsholicus, I might just find myself able to be brave about it.

    On a happier note, a spider described in the recent past was named in honour of Frank Zappa (on the basis that the markings on its arse look like Frank’s tash-and-goatee). Let science triumph!.

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