For the first time, researchers have sequenced the genomes of the European hornet and the yellow-legged Asian hornet, contrasting them with the previously sequenced giant northern hornet genome. This study suggests that understanding these genomes may aid in conserving hornet populations, while minimizing their ecological danger in invaded areas.
Researchers at UCL sequenced the genomes of two hornet species, revealing a rapid genome evolution that might explain their success as an invasion animal, as well as their ecological impacts.
For the first time, a team led by UCL (University College London) scientists have sequenced two hornet species, the European hornet and the Asian hornet.
Researchers have identified reasons why hornets have been so successful as an invaded animal across the world.
Hornets are the most abundant social wasps, and they play an important ecological role as major predators of other insects. In their native habitats, they are natural pest controllers, regulating insects such as flies, beetles, caterpillars, and other kinds of wasps.
Despite the fact that hornets are not the only invading animals, they can be quite successful as an invasion species. They may establish themselves in areas they are not native to, and may result in significant ecological and economic damage as a result of their hunting of important pollinators, such as honeybees, wild bees, and hoverflies.
The international team of scientists studied the genomes of three different kinds of hornets to understand why these animals have so successfully expanded their ranges.
A genome sequence is the set of instructions — a genetic code — that makes a species. Seeing the genomes of different species can reveal insights into their biology, such as their behavior, evolution, and interactions with the environment.
The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) is a plant native to Southeast Asia. It is an invasive species in many parts of Europe, and it has also been found in several parts of North America. Its sting can be severe, and it may even be fatal to people who are allergic.
Vespa crabro, an important top predator in parts of Europe, has recently been sequenced, as have the invasive yellow-legged Asian hornet Vespa velutina, which has been established throughout much of Europe over the past 20 years, and has occasionally been sighted in the UK. Vespa mandarinia is a giant northern hornet that has recently arrived in North America, where it may harm native fauna.
Researchers were able to identify genes that have been rapidly evolving since the species distinguished themselves from other wasps and from one another, as well as some notable genes that are rapidly evolving, especially in the areas of communication and smell.
"We were surprised to discover evidence of rapid genome evolution in these hornet genomes, compared to other social insects, because of the fact that a lot of genes are likely to be involved in communication and in sensing the environment," said the study's first author.
Genome evolution allows organisms to adapt to their environment and make the most of their surroundings by developing new behaviors and physiology.
Dr Alessandro Cini, a co-author of the present study at UCL before attending the University of Pisa, said: "These findings are encouraging, as they may explain why hornets have been so successful in establishing new populations in non-native areas.
"Hornets are carried in different directions of the world by humans, or to be transported in a cargo," according to the genomes. hornets may have a lot of genes involved in sensing and responding to chemical signals, and may be particularly adept at hunting different types of prey in non-native regions.
Professor Seirian Sumner, a senior author at the University of California Center for Biodiversity and Environment, said: "These hornet genomes are just the beginning. Around the world, research has now identified the genomes of around 3,000 insect species, yet wasps remain underrepresented.
"Genomes reveal aspects of ecology and evolution that other methods cannot. Evolution has equipped these insects with an incredible genetic toolbox with which to experiment with their environment and hunt their prey."
Scientists hope to use these new genomes to improve hornet management, both for their ecosystem services as pest controllers in native areas as well as as ecological threats in areas where they are invasive.
Scientific Reports: "Putting hornets on the genomic map" 21 April 2023. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-31932-x
Researchers from the Natural Environment Research Council participated in the study, which was funded primarily by the Natural Environment Research Council.