The insect order Hymenoptera is one of the largest orders of insects and includes some of the most familiar types of insects known. The insects that belong to this order include bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies. There are over 100,000 different species that belong to ninety families found in this order world wide, making it the third largest order of insects.
What makes this order of insects unique from the other orders is the complex social systems and adaptability that many of the families evolved to not only thrive, but dominate in the insect world. The most famous members of this order that use social systems are ants, social bees, such as honey and bumble bees, and social wasps, such as yellowjackets and paper wasps. Social members of Hymenoptera evolved separately from termites, which also have complex social structures but belong to the order Isoptera.
The word hymenoptera can be broken down into the two Greek words hymen, and ptera, which translate to membrane and winged, describing the types of wings that insects of Hymenoptera possess. The wings are clear and appear to be covered with a thin membrane. Common characteristicsthat the insects of this order share include a life cycle with a complete metamorphosis (homometabola), two sets of wings (with the exception of worker ants) that are hooked together and beat in unison, and a three segmented body. Another characteristic is that males are born from unfertilized eggs while females are born from fertilized eggs.
There are nine distinct groups that members of Hymenopterafall into. Those groups are the sawflies, horntails, parasitic wasps, gall wasps, predatory wasps, social wasps, ants, solitary bees, and social bees. Each of these groups share the common traits described previously, but have distinct differences from each other.
Sawflies look like wasps in appearance, but lack the “wasp waist”. They come in a multitude of colors from black to bright orange, and are usually from 1/8 to 1 inch long in size. The larva feed on the foliage of vegetation while the adults drink nectar.
Horntails are also wasp-like in appearance, and have thin bodies but no wasp waist. They come in solid colors or can be striped black and yellow, depending on the species. The defining characteristic of a horntail is the triangular plate on the tip of the abdomen that may be elongated into a spine in some species. The larva feed on vegetation and bore into wood, while the adults feed on nectar.
Parasitic wasps make up the largest group in the order, and are also the most diverse. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on the larva or eggs of other insects, which the wasp larva feeds on until it pupates. The host larva usually dies soon after the adult wasp emerges from its pupa. Host larvae include other species of wasps, butterfly and moth caterpillars, beetle larvae and spiders. The adult wasp feeds on nectar from flowers. Because this group is so large, the size of adult wasps ranges from 1/8 to 3 inches in length, and they come in a varied assortment of colors.
Gall wasps are small wasps of 1/8 to 3/8 inch long, and are usually shiny black or brown. Adult gall wasps lay eggs into specific host plant tissue in which a gall forms as the eggs hatch and develop into larva which feed on the plant tissue inside of the gall. After pupating, the adult gall wasp leaves the gall. Adult gall wasps may feed on nectar or simply do not feed at all.
Predatory wasps are the wasps that hunt and paralyze prey with their stingers. This prey is actually intended for the larva of the wasps, as the adults feed on nectar from plants. This group includes hornets, paperwasps, hunterwasps and cicada killers.
Social wasps have a social system put in place with a queen and workers who take care of the queen’s larvae. These wasps include yellowjackets, hornets and paperwasps. This group of wasps is also well known for their reputation of stinging unwanted trespassers who may get too close to the nest or provoke the wasps in some way that may cause them to act defensively and aggressively.
Ants are one of the most well known members of this order, and are also well known for their adamant colonization and nest building. An ant colony consists of a queen and sterile female workers who tend to the queen, her eggs and larvae. Reproductive ants, both male and female, are winged. In the world of ants, the male ant’s sole purpose is to mate with the queen, and he dies shortly after mating. Worker ants forage to feed both the queen and her larvae, and do this by regurgitating. Nests come in a vast range of diverse shapes, sizes and materials, depending on the species of ant and the materials available in their habitat.
Solitary bees are bees that do not form colonies. These types of bees include mason bees and leaf cutter bees. They construct nests in the cavities of wood or clay, where individual cells are made that each contain one egg. The larva are left on their own to feed on nectar and pollen that is provided by the female after the egg is laid.
Social bees, next to ants, are the most studied group of insects in this order. These types of bees include the honey bee and the bumble bee. Similarly to ants, a colony of bees is made up of female workers that take care of the queen and her offspring in a nest called a hive. In the case of honey bees, an intricate comb is constructed of wax which is filled with the larvae. The larvae are fed honey, and the queen is fed royal jelly. Honey bees are bred and farmed all over the world for the honey that they make, and are also important pollinators for crops.
The Hymenoptera order of insects contains a very diverse group of insects that are not only important as pollinators in the case of bees and social wasps, but also as pest control in the case of predatory and parasitic wasps. The insects with complex social structures of this order are fascinating to observe and learn from. They have evolved specific adaptations that have enabled them to be successful in the highly competitive world of insects.