Ansel Payne: Road-tripping for Wasps and Bees

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On October 27, the third cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-granting program for any museum in the Western Hemisphere—will receive Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at a commencement ceremony in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. We're profiling the soon-to-be minted Ph.D.s this week (read other profiles here, here, and here).

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Ansel Payne collects specimens in Nicaragua.

©Mairin Odle


Last summer, Ansel Payne drove 16,000 miles in two months. Travelling from New York City to the deserts of the American West—zigzagging between Arizona, California, Colorado, and Oregon—Payne collected thousands of wasp and bee specimens for his doctoral research. 

Since many species are uncommon, Payne, a student in the Richard Gilder Graduate School, mapped out his target sites by first consulting the Museum’s collections to note specific locales where they’d been found before.


This road trip—which included many nights at inexpensive motels or camping in “middle-of-nowhere” places—was just one of Payne’s field expeditions while at RGGS. He also traveled to the Museum’s Southwestern Research Station in Arizona, as well as to Nicaragua and Israel, where he expanded his study of modern groups of solitary bees and wasps. 

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On the road in Arizona

©Ansel Payne


While bees and wasps are often thought of as social animals—imagine a hive of honeybees—most species are actually solitary and don’t form colonies. Payne studied several of these solitary forms, including the philanthine wasps often called bee wolves, since some species hunt bees to feed their larvae (as adults, they eat mostly flower nectar).

Payne was interested in how these wasps’ behavior was revealed in their evolution over time. For instance, there is at least one group of philanthine wasps that no longer hunts bees; instead they prey on beetles, and evolved adaptations allowing them to do so effectively. As Payne explains, females from one beetle-eating group have horn-like structures on the fronts of their faces. These help females more easily carry the heavy beetles to their nests after stinging them, where their larvae later eat the paralyzed insects.

 

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A philanthine wasp, Cerceris sp., photographed in Massachusetts 

©Ansel Payne


“Life is really old,” says Payne, explaining what drew him to the study of comparative biology. “And it has this mysterious backstory we don’t know much about.” But, he adds, we have a “few methods that allow us to recreate it as best we can.”

Today, Payne, a former high-school biology teacher who studied biology in college at Harvard University and for his master’s degree at Tufts University, is a postdoctoral affiliate of the Museum. He now works at the Rare Book School, located at the University of Virginia, which offers courses about all aspects of rare books, from binding to librarianship. He will receive his Ph.D. from the Richard Gilder Graduate School on October 27.

Meanwhile, the thousands of wasp and bee specimens Payne collected in the field have become part of the Museum’s research collection—clues for other researchers searching for the mysterious backstory of life.