A graduate assistant at the University of Hawaii Manoa was running experiments and looking for microscopic beetles. He wound up finding something else entirely.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeResearchers say that the “Menehune Wasp” belongs to a group of small wasps called Mymarommatoidea, which are about a half millimeter in length. They are part of a group of parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs within the eggs or bodies of host insects.

The Menehune wasp is a new species under that group of parasitoid wasps, and it was first found at UH Manoa.

David Honsberger, the graduate assistant, was looking for bark beetles. Both the beetles and the newly discovered wasp are microscopic, so looking for one may yield the discovery of the other.

Branches from a banyan tree just below the student dorms were collected to find any eggs that were laid. The researchers discovered the wasps had been injecting their offspring in the eggs of bark lice, which had been predicted before, based on their bodies.

The new wasp is not known to be a parasite to any insects native to the islands. It does not cause any ecological or economic damage, so by definition it is not invasive according to UH professor Mark Wright.

David Honsberger and his wife Maya discovered a new species of wasp near the athletic fields at UH Manoa. Charleston Cazimero/Civil Beat/2022

Wright, who also was credited with the discovery of the new wasp, said that their work shows the value of close observation, patience and appreciation for what we can find in our backyard.

“Work like this raises the profile of UH internationally,” Wright said.

Since insects tend to be attracted to light, Honsberger and a team of researchers from the university’s Wright Lab put wood in a dark box and poked a tiny hole for light to come through. The insects would enter the opening and fall into a bottle that is attached on the other side. The wasp just so happened to be among a sample that was collected, Honsberger said.

UH entomologists from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources gave it the name “Mymaromma menehune.” The wasps are small, elusive and rarely ever seen – like a mythical menehune.  A study on the wasp discovery was published earlier this year in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

Other researchers involved were Maya Honsberger, who is married to David, John Huber of the Canadian National Collection of Insects and Wright Lab staff Ali Miarkiani, Michelle Au, Shannon Wilson, Daniel Hausler, Vanessa Goodman and Laura Doucette.

The wasp has a membrane on the back of its head that can expand and contract like a balloon, Honsberger said. They also have mandibles that push outwards instead of meeting in the middle. It is believed that they expand their heads and use their mandibles to push themselves out of the eggs of the bark lice.

Another interesting feature is their wings, Honsberger added. Most insects have four wings, but the Menehune Wasp only has two. Instead of a second set of wings, the wasp has stake-like parts that have a hook at the end. The feature may suggest that they don’t really flap their wings to fly, but instead they use the hooks to prop their wings in place to glide with the wind.

Both Honsberger and Wright said they still need to do more research in this area.They also incidentally discovered another new species of wasps, Phymastichus holoholo, that also parasitizes bark beetles, many of which are serious pests in Hawaii. The more they know about the natural enemies of pest species, Honsberger said, the better they are at using them to control invasive species.

“More or less all of human knowledge kind of begins with knowing what’s out there in the world,” Honsberger said. “This one has a lot of unique body structures, so how it uses them, and how evolution has engineered it is something from which we can probably learn some tricks.”

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