Solitary Wasps

An Academy entomologist travels the globe to track down tiny, predatory wasps.

Jane Goodall had it made with chimps. The large, humanlike apes shout out echoing hoo-hoos, beat their chests, and shake tree branches to make a point. But for many scientists, like Academy entomologist Wojciech Pulawski, just finding the animals they study can be a chore. Pulawski has spent the past two decades scouring dry deserts and searing savannas around the world in search of wasps the size of houseflies. Unlike many flies and bees, his study subjects don't swarm or build hives. In fact, these fascinating wasps in the family Sphecidae hunt, rest, and eat alone.

Despite the odds, Pulawski has observed wasp behaviors that make chimps look like a troop of monks. To reproduce, female wasps hunt down other insects or spiders and inject them with paralyzing venom. She carries the immobile bug back to her nest, where she deposits her eggs on it. After hatching, the larvae burrow into the host and slowly eat it alive as they develop into adults.

While Pulawski's observations in the field border on science fiction, his main initiative is grounded in everyday life: to help identify and understand the balanced host of organisms on Earth. He has described hundreds of species of solitary wasps including 239 previously unknown to science. His passion has taken him from his home country of Poland to Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Papua New Guinea.

Dr. Pulawski with a flight trap and net for collecting insects. Photo: Maureen Bourbin

One of the still undescribed species discovered in Tanzania in Pulawski's 2001 expedition.
Photo: Dong Lin

Wasps are attracted to the flowers of Boscia angustifolia in the Tanzanian desert areas.
Photo: Wojciech Pulawski