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'Darwin's Nightmare: what parasitoid wasps can tell us about ecology and evolution'

Thursday 31 May 2001

'Darwin's Nightmare: what parasitoid wasps can tell us about ecology and evolution' - the 2001 F. W. Edwards Lecture

at The Natural History Museum

2pm Wednesday 6 June 2001

Charles Darwin said that one of the reasons he couldn't believe in a beneficent god was the existence of something with a lifecycle quite as nasty as a parasitoid.

Yet this year's Edwards lecturer has spent a lifetime exploring the behaviour of parasitoids and finds Darwin's conclusion highly ironic:

Professor Charles Godfray
Professor Charles Godfray
"From their 'family planning' ability to their use in pest control, these tiny wasps and their intricate behaviours are marvellous models for exploring questions in evolution and ecology," says Professor Charles Godfray FRS, professor of evolutionary biology at Imperial College, London.


The lecture, organised by The Natural History Museum and the Royal Entomological Society, is entitled 'Darwin's Nightmare: what parasitoid wasps can tell us about ecology and evolution'. It will show the intimate connection between the natural history of these insects, and how understanding their behaviour can help test major theories in ecology and evolution.

Quite apart from their unique 'nastiness' - a term describing how the larvae of parasitoid wasps feed on and develop within the living tissue of their insect hosts - parasitic wasps are abundant but overlooked members of insect communities throughout the world.

The remarkable adaptations of these wasps include the location of hosts on which to lay their eggs, and also very precise 'family planning' ability when deciding the number and sex of eggs to lay.

"Parasitoids produce biased sex ratios, often an excess of females, and predicting the exact circumstances when different biases occur has provided some of the best quantitative tests of natural selection," says Professor Godfray, who is also Director of NERC Centre for Population Biology, at Silwood Park, near Ascot.

The wasps are also important in structuring natural insect communities and for this reason they have been closely studied by ecologists.

A modern use of parasitic wasps is in pest control and they are estimated to have saved world agriculture billions of pounds. In Africa, a minute wasp, Apoanagyrus lopezi destroys the major pest, Cassava Mealybug, of the Cassava crop.

To obtain a press ticket, please contact:

Terri Holmes
Natural History Museum
Telephone: 020 7942 5738

For further information about the lecture:

Taslima Khan
Imperial College Press Office
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6712
Fax: +44 (0)20 7594 6700

Becky Allen Press Officer Royal Entomological Society Telephone: 01223 570016 Email:

Notes to Editors:

1. Professor H C (Charles) J Godfray's research involves both experimental and theoretical studies of ecology and evolution. Since childhood he has been a keen natural historian, investigating everything from insects to birds and plants.

Professor Godfray was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society earlier thi earlier this month. His citation for the fellowship reads 'Professor Godfray has been at the forefront of theoretical advances in life history evolution and the theory of parent offspring conflict; and in the population dynamic interactions between insects and their natural enemies. Using insect parasitoids as a model experimental system, he has studied the coevolution of resistance and virulence, and what structures host-parasitoid communities in thefield.'

Further information about Professor Godfray's work is available at:

2. The Frederick W. Edwards Lecture is a major annual event in The Natural History Museum's Insect Natural History series, and it is organised by the NHM'S Department of Entomology in conjunction with the Royal Entomological Society. Previous distinguished speakers have been Dr Ward Wheeler (American Museum of Natural History), at the forefront of the developing theory of phylogenetic analysis, and the outstanding insect ecologist Professor Daniel Janzen (University of Pennsylvania).

3. Founded in 1833 as the Entomological Society of London, the Royal Entomological Society plays a major national and international role in disseminating information about insects and improving communication between entomologists. It has over 1,500 members in the UK and abroad. Details of other Royal Entomological Society events are available at

4. Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine is an independent constituent part of the University of London. Founded in 1907, the College teaches a full range of science, engineering, medical and management disciplines at the highest level. The College is the largest scientific, technological and medical university institution in the UK, with one of the largest annual turnovers (UKP339 million in 1999-2000) and research incomes (UKP176 million in 1999-2000). Web site at