In 2016, my fieldwork will be in Panama, where we know that 'drifting' (the mysterious movement of wasps between colonies, which is the focus of my PhD) takes place at extreme levels. Data from 2005 show that over half of detected wasps were 'drifters', so this is a real chance to get to the bottom of this Darwinian enigma.
It's all looking great. The only potential snag is that next year is likely to be an intensely dry year in Panama, due to the return of El Nino - a large-scale climatic phenomenon in the Pacific in which the colder eastern side of the Pacific warms up, leading to shifts in precipitation and temperature. Here's a handy guide from the Met Office:
So should I be worried? Here's my current thinking.
What's already happening in Panama?
The Panamanian rainy season in 2015 has been both slow to develop and weak. In fact, the current El Nino is looking suspiciously like it will be the strongest since 1997, which itself was the strongest on record . As STRI (the Smithsonian Institution's famous tropical research arm in Panama) have declared, "the total rainfall recorded up to August 18th was... the lowest ever recorded since records began in 1925" .
Should we be concerned?
It seems likely that next year's wet season will be unusually dry. This is a potential problem for a wasp biologist (me!), because wasp populations are likely to respond negatively to drought stress, both in terms of abundance and activity patterns.
It is too early to be sure what the effects will be. I am currently in contact with groups on the ground in Panama, and monitoring the state of the wasp populations over the coming months will be crucial.
Please contact me if you have any information!
If you're reading this from Central and South America and know the state of your local wasps, then I'd love to hear from you. Do let me know if your wasps are as abundant as normal, or whether there have been any noticeable adverse effects. Many thanks!
Adventures of a
Dr Patrick Kennedy, Radford Lab, University of Bristol | Zoology