WaspWeb is an online bioinformatics resource dealing with all aspects of global wasp, bee and ant (Hymenoptera) diversity. This Scratchpads database driven version of WaspWeb compliments the existing html version of WaspWeb available at www.waspweb.org (van Noort S, 2004-2021), and forms part of the Afrotropical Hymenoptera Initiative (AHI), an initiative driven by Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town). Current focus is on the Afrotropical fauna, but coverage will gradually expand to include the world fauna, with some groups already at this level: http://www.waspweb.org/Cynipoidea/index.htm
Species richness and diversity of world wasps, bees and ants is poorly known, yet they are an extremely important group of insects from both an economic and a conservation perspective. Without pollination services provided by wasps and bees, and insect population control via wasps and ants, ecosystems would collapse. Wasps and bees are important pollinators, playing a critical role in ecosystem functioning including maintenance and evolution of floral species richness. Parasitoid wasps play a vital ecological role as natural controllers of insect populations, including those that are detrimental to agriculture, forestry, and human and animal health, and have vast potential for use in managed bio-control programs. Some wasps and ants are pests, while others, such as the honeybee, provide beneficial resources. Ants are valuable indicator species in conservation and ecological monitoring. To manage and conserve wasps, ants and bees, we need to inventory the species that are involved, a prerequisite to understanding the role that they play in ecological processes.
Knowledge of Afrotropical Hymenopteran diversity and biology, as it is on a global basis, is in its infancy at species level. We are slowly addressing this paucity of biodiversity data through the Afrotropical Hymenoptera Initiative: www.waspweb.org/Afrotropical_Hymenoptera_book/index.htm. Immediate goals are to produce well-illustrated identification keys to all Afrotropical wasp, bee and ant genera, providing a contemporary state-of-the-art resource available to a range of end-user competency. Provision of this current synthesis of Afrotropical Hymenopteran systematics, including an overview of species richness, distribution and biological associations will provide a dynamic resource facilitating future research on this ecologically and economically important order of insects.
The Hymenoptera, particularly the economically important Parasitica, are poorly known from a taxonomic and species richness perspective, with an estimated 20% or less of the extant species known to science. Current estimates of described world hymenopteran species richness tally at 154 000 (Aguiar et al, 2013, Huber, 2017), of these only about 20 000 described species are known from the Afrotropical region (van Noort, in prep.). A conservative extrapolated estimate suggests there are as many as 100 000 species, with a possibility that the total may be as high as 500 000 species, in the Afrotropical region alone (van Noort, in prep). The same holds for South Africa, where only 6 000 hymenopteran species are described of an estimated 30 000 – 120 000 species (van Noort, in prep). With current rates of environmental degradation and habitat destruction, inventory of undocumented species from under-sampled or threatened habitats is a matter of urgency. Comprehensive biodiversity inventory surveys are increasingly being implemented in the Afrotropical region to collect and describe the wealth of new species. However, a major hurdle in the inventory process is the lack of a synthesized taxonomic resource to enable identification of this rich fauna. Pertinent information is available for many groups of Hymenoptera, but this information is scattered through the literature and not readily accessible. The majority of available taxonomic treatments and identification keys are out of date.
An indication of just how poor this knowledge is can be gleaned from the current taxonomic status of the Afrotropical Ichneumonidae, which can be used as a benchmark for extrapolation of hymenopteran species richness. Species richness and diversity of Afrotropical Ichneumonidae is poorly known. There are currently 363 described genera (world c. 1 600 genera) and 2 102 described species (world c. 25 000 species) of Ichneumonidae in the Afrotropical region, but I estimate that there are about 20 000 species in total, hence we know about 10% of the fauna, whereas on a global basis an estimated 25% of species are described. Historically about 800-900 ichneumonid species have been described every 50 years since the first African species was named in 1758, but in the last 20 years we have only described 162 ichneumonid species. Contemporary systematic treatments have allowed for an assessment of the degree of knowledge for the undiscovered fauna, with revisions at generic level resulting in a 10-100 fold increase in species richness. However, this is still an underestimate of true richness for these groups, as revisions are based on existing specimens in museum repositories emanating from an extremely inadequate sampling of the ecosystems in the region, and hence represent a small fraction of the actual extant species richness. The vast majority of African vegetation types and habitats have not been adequately sampled and most ichneumonid species still remain to be collected. More than 95% of quarter-degree grid cells still have not been sampled, or have only had superficial ad hoc sampling conducted in them. This short-coming is exemplified by high species turnover between sampling methods within a locality in existing inventory surveys. To fill these massive sampling gaps requires implementation of intensive long-term, continuous inventory regimes, using a diverse and comprehensive range of sampling methods with a high degree of spatial and temporal coverage to efficiently document species richness. This is a critical need, particularly given the rapid escalation in habitat transformation, largely as the result of anthropogenic impact.
Over the last 28 years I have conducted continuous inventory surveys in Africa, which have produced in excess of 10 million wasp specimens. There are, however, many challenges and constraints associated with mobilizing existing specimen data for the hyper-diverse Hymenoptera. These include major logistical bottle-necks associated with curation, digitization and description of sampled specimens, centered on a lack of resource capacity to address this backlog within a reasonable time frame. These challenges will escalate with effective implementation of a comprehensive regional sampling/inventory strategy. Leveraging appropriate resources is a critical requirement to elevate biodiversity data of this group of insects through the value chain for the benefit of science and society.