Ageniella conflicta, photographed by Jenny Schlauch.

Belongs within: Pompilidae.
Contains: Phanagenia, Auplopus.

The Ageniellini: nest evolution in spider wasps
Published 4 June 2019

The Pompilidae, commonly known as spider wasps or spider hawks, are a distinctive and often conspicuous group of wasps, well known for their practice of capturing spiders and sealing them paralysed into nest cells to serve as food for their developing larvae. Though spider hawks come in a wide range of sizes and colours, I can say from experience that they are often a challenging group of animals to work with taxonomically. Their superficial diversity often masks a certain structural sameness that makes it hard to develop a reliable system for the family. Nevertheless, one subgroup of the pompilids that has long been recognised as distinct is the subject of today’s post, the Ageniellini.

Female Ageniella arcuata carrying a lynx spider, copyright Edward Trammel.

Agniellins are generally smaller spider wasps whose distinguishing features include a more or less constricted base to the metasoma, forming a petiole. Females have a collection of relatively long, forward-directed setae on the prementum, a sclerite on the underside of the head that forms the rear margin of the mouthparts (you could think of it as the wasp’s ‘chin’). As befits their smaller size, they provision their nests with smaller and medium-sized spiders. As well as paralysing the spider with their sting in the usual way, ageniellins will also often remove its legs before sealing it into a cell, though Barthélémy & Pitts (2012) observed that this might not be done with small spiders. The Ageniellini have been further divided between two subtribes, the Ageniellina and Auplopodina. In Ageniellina, the premental setae are relatively fine and the end of the metasomal dorsum (the pygidium) in females is rounded and hairy. In Auplopodina, the premental setae are further modified into strong, thick bristles and the female pygidium is more or less flattened and smooth. However, the aformentioned characters of Ageniellina are primitive and shared with non-ageniellin spider wasps. A phylogenetic analysis of the Ageniellini by Shimizu et al. (2010) reinforced the suggestion that ‘Ageniellina’ might be paraphyletic with regard to the monophyletic Auplopodina.

Auplopus carbonarius, copyright Fritz Geller-Grimm.

Ageniellini are of particular interest among spider wasps for the variety of nesting behaviours they exhibit, which were reviewed in detail by Evans & Shimizu (1996). The primitive nesting behaviour for pompilids, shared by species of ‘Ageniellina’, is to dig nest cells in holes in the ground. ‘Ageniellina’ construct short holes from pre-existing openings in the soil such as caves, crevices or the burrows of animals. The holes are closed by patting down soil using the end of the metasoma. The origin of the Auplopodina, however, saw a seemingly small innovation that was to have significant consequences: the evolution of the ability to carry a small amount of water in the crop. Initially, this allowed the wasps to nest in firmer ground than was previously possible, using water to soften the soil before digging. Many Auplopodina species still nest in this fashion. They could also carry balls of mud under the head using the basket of premental bristles, using the mud to close up holes. Eventually, they started using mud to build barrel-shaped nest cells above ground, bypassing the need to dig, and/or closing up suitable pre-existing cavities such as hollow plant stems or abandoned cells from other wasps. The most basic mud cells are still vulnerable to damage from rain and water so are built in sheltered locations such as attached to plant rootlets protruding from overhanging banks. However, some Auplopodina species have learnt to cover the outside of the cell with a coating of resin to provide water resistance and so are able to build in more exposed places such as underneath plant branches or leaves. Species of one genus, Poecilagenia, are kleptoparasites, breaking into the nests of other pompilids and closing them back up after depositing their own eggs inside.

Macromerella honesta females on a communal nest, from Barthélémy & Pitts (2012).

The greatest advance in nesting behaviour known from a handful of Auplopodina species is the appearance of communal behaviour, potentially derived from multiple factors. The need for suitable sheltered sites for nest-building places a premium on location, increasing the likelihood of intra-specific encounters. The ability to break down and re-purpose pre-existing nest cells rather than building entirely from scratch makes it worthwhile for females to linger around their own place of hatching. In one eastern Asian species, Machaerothrix tsushimensis, dominance behaviour has been observed around nests with one female largely monopolising cell construction and provisioning while other females remain largely inactive, only constructing their own cells when the dominant female is elsewhere. In other communal Auplopodina species, females will share in the construction and guarding of nest cells.

True eusocial behaviour as found in vespid wasps and bees is unknown in pompilids. It has been suggested that their practice of provisioning brood cells only at the time of the construction, without providing subsequent meals, may be a hindrance to sociability as there is little incentive for females to provide for the larvae of other individuals. Nevertheless, the Ageniellini demonstrate that basic communality is not beyond the abilities of spider wasps.

Systematics of Ageniellini
<==Ageniellini [Macromerini, Pseudagenini]E07
    |  i. s.: Fabriogenia Banks 1941E07
    |           |--*F. incompta Banks 1941E07
    |           |--F. consociata (Turner 1910) [=Pseudagenia consociata]E07
    |           `--F. fusiformis (Saussure 1867) [=Agenia fusiformis, Pseudagenia fusiformis]E07
    |         Paragenia argentifronsB38 [=Auplopus argentifronsS94]
    |         Dinagenia satyrus Banks 1938B38
    |         Dichragenia Haupt 1959S94
    |           |--D. neaveiS94
    |           `--D. pulchricomaS94
    |--+--Atopagenia Wasbauer 1987S94
    |  |    `--A. menkeiS94
    |  `--+--Phanochilus Banks 1944S94
    |     `--Priocnemella Banks 1925S94
    |          `--P. rufothoraxS94
    |--+--Poecilageniella Ishikawa 1965S94
    |  |    |--P. hirashimaiS94
    |  |    `--P. maruyamaiS94
    |  `--Meragenia Banks 1934S94, T89
    |       |--M. imitatorB38
    |       |--M. semirufa Banks 1938B38
    |       `--M. stultaB38
    |  |--AuplopusS94
    |  |--Machaerothrix Haupt 1938S94
    |  |   |--M. tsushimensisS94
    |  |   `--M. ussuriensisS94
    |  `--+--Macromerella Banks 1934S94
    |     |    `--M. honesta (Smith 1855)T90 (see below for synonymy)
    |     `--Macromeris Lepeletier 1831S94, E07 [=Macromerys (l. c.)E07]
    |          |--*M. splendida Lepeletier 1831E07
    |          `--M. violacea Lepeletier 1831 [incl. M. indica Haupt 1941]E07
    `--Ageniella Banks 1912 [Ageniellina]S94
         |--A. (Ageniella)S94
         |    |--A. (A.) acceptaS94
         |    |--A. (A.) blaisdelliS94
         |    |--A. (A.) conflictaS94
         |    |--A. (A.) coronataS94
         |    |--A. (A.) cupidaS94
         |    |--A. (A.) euphorbiaeS94
         |    |--A. (A.) mintakaS94
         |    |--A. (A.) neglectaS94
         |    |--A. (A.) norataS94
         |    `--A. (A.) utilisS94
         |--A. (Alasagenia Banks 1944)S94
         |    `--A. (A.) sartorianaS94
         |--A. (Leucophrus Townes 1951)S94
         |    `--A. (L.) semitinctaS94
         |--A. (Nemagenia Banks 1944)S94
         |    `--A. (N.) longulaS94
         `--A. (Priophanes Banks 1944)S94
              |--A. (P.) agenioidesS94
              |--A. (P.) arcuataS94
              |--A. (P.) carolaeS94
              `--A. (P.) facetaS94

Macromerella honesta (Smith 1855)T90 [=Pompilus honestusT90, Macromeris honestaB38, Pseudagenia honestaT90; incl. Macromeris apicalis Matsumura & Uchida 1926T90]

*Type species of generic name indicated


[B38] Banks, N. 1938. Some Psammocharidae from Singapore. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 40 (8): 236–249.

Barthélémy, C., & J. Pitts. 2012. Observations on the nesting behavior of two agenielline spider wasps (Hymenoptera, Pompilidae) in Hong Kong, China: Macromerella honesta (Smith) and an Auplopus species. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 28: 13–35.

[E07] Elliott, M. G. 2007. Annotated catalogue of the Pompilidae (Hymenoptera) of Australia. Zootaxa 1428: 1–83.

Evans, H. E., & A. Shimizu. 1996. The evolution of nest building and communal nesting in Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Journal of Natural History 30 (11): 1633–1648.

[S94] Shimizu, A. 1994. Phylogeny and classification of the family Pompilidae (Hymenoptera). Tokyo Metropolitan University Bulletin of Natural History 2: 1–142.

Shimizu, A., M. Wasbauer & Y. Takami. 2010. Phylogeny and the evolution of nesting behaviour in the tribe Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160: 88–117.

[T89] Tsuneki, K. 1989. A study on the Pompilidae of Taiwan (Hymenoptera). Special Publications of the Japan Hymenopterists Association 35: 1–180.

[T90] Tsuneki, K. 1990. The Pompilidae of the Ryukyus (Hymenoptera). Special Publications of the Japan Hymenopterists Association 36: 1–65.

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