wasps have been around for a very long time. The fact that modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years makes it even more remarkable.
Solitary wasps lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. The earliest wasps discovered in the fossil record date from around 240 million years ago or the Mid-Triassic. The first evidence for social wasps, however, is dated at 30 million years, after the time of the dinosaurs.
Let’s take a closer look at what we know about the earliest wasps and what they looked like.
The earliest wasps
It is believed that the first wasps were related to snakeflies (source). Their elongated bodies and mobile heads give them their name. These insects alongside the earliest wasps would have shared the planet with some of the most well-known dinosaurs including the tyrannosaurus-rex.
The earliest wasp species were solitary wasp species. Today the majority of wasps are still solitary meaning that they do not live in colonies. Most human contact, however, are with social wasps such as yellow-jackets and paper wasps. The earliest fossil example of a social wasp, Palaoevepulsa balitica, was dated to 30 million years old.
It is possible that social wasps did not live alongside dinosaurs which went extinct about 65 million years ago.
What did early wasps look like?
It seems that early wasps although flying at the same time as dinosaurs were not any larger than the wasps we see today. So, no giant wasps the size of birds. It seems that many solitary wasp species of wasp have gone relatively unchanged despite the vast periods of time.
Fossils preserved in amber discovered in Myanmar in 2020 show cuckoo wasps dated to 99 million years ago are virtually identical to those found today. Remarkably, the green color of the insects was preserved matching the green seen on cuckoo wasps now.
It is thought that cuckoo wasps, also known as emerald wasps, evolved this metallic green color as a form of camouflage. A color that seems to have served it well given the length of its existence.
As the name suggests cuckoo wasps lay their eggs in unrelated insect species. The use of clever chemicals has evolved to trick the hosts into believing the eggs to be their own.
What is the oldest discovered insect?
The oldest insects are believed to have evolved on earth about 400 million years ago at about the same time as land-based plants. The oldest fossil example is rhyniognatha hirsti. While not proven some believe that it was a flying insect. The fossil was discovered in 1919 and can be seen at the Natural History Museum in London.
Most modern insects appear to have evolved in the Jurassic period (201 to 145 million years ago).
Next time you see that annoying wasp buzzing around it might be worth remembering that they were on this planet, in an almost identical form, hundreds of millions of years before us humans.