Social wasps live in societies of 100s-1000s of individuals. The worker wasps hunt arthropod prey or scavenge animal protein to feed their larvae: this makes them important in the ecosystem as regulators of arthropod populations. However, we know very little about what wasps actually eat, and thus lack the information to assess their role in the ecosystem as predators. This studentship will use metabarcoding analyses of the waste products of wasp larvae – the meconium – to determine what wasps eat. Each larva accumulates the solid metabolic waste in the gut over its lifetime and excretes it as a meconium immediately prior to pupation. The meconium remains attached to the nest, even after the nest has been abandoned. Because the waste is highly condensed and desiccated, DNA is extremely well preserved and provides an entire record of food intake of individual larvae. The meconium therefore is a rich source of information for ecological, evolutionary and demographic studies of social wasps.
The student will use metabarcoding analyses of meconia from a range of social wasp species from contemporary and historic nests, to address questions including: (a) how does demography and seasonality affect resource use by social wasps? (b) Can diet differences between co-existing native and invasive species (e.g. Asian hornets) reveal the ecosystem impact of invasive social wasps? (c) Is there a phylogenetic basis to species-level differences in wasp diets? (d) Can historic wasp meconia, from nests in museum collections, be used to deduce changes in diet with environmental and land-use change?