Reconstructing the Family Tree: Wasps, Ants, and Bees

One universal feature of life on earth is that diversification rates—the rate at which new species form—vary widely among lineages and over time. In insects, changes in life history, like shifts in diet, social structure, and mode of parasitism, may be one explanation. Discovering the exact factors that force diversification has proven difficult, as few lineages of insects include taxa that exhibit all of these life history traits. Enter the stinging wasps, ants, and bees (Aculeata), which may be an exception, with a diversity of life histories as well as many shifts in life history—from carnivory to pollenivory, from solitary nesting to advanced sociality, and from free-living to cleptoparasitic. Bryan N. Danforth, Entomology, seeks to understand how these shifts have impacted diversification and to reconstruct the evolutionary relationship among 65,000 aculeate species, a group that includes some of the most sophisticated social organisms on earth.

Danforth and his team will undertake this task by enriching genomic libraries and using the latest technologies in DNA sequencing to generate massive data sets. Using bioinformatics tools, the data sets will be assembled, aligned, and analyzed to resolve relationships between aculeate species and determine where and when shifts in diversification took place. Young researchers will receive training in DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, among other things, and the data will be publically available through Genbank, TreeBase, Dryad, and the Encyclopedia of Life webpages, significantly contributing expertise to the field and beyond. In addition, protocols developed will be widely available to other researchers interested in applying these methods. Finally, the project will lead to the development of a 600 square-foot traveling public exhibit on the biodiversity, evolutionary history, and importance of our most important agricultural pollinators, the bees.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$850 Thousand spanning 3 years

Sponsored by