Scientific discoveries can happen when you least expect them, and nobody knows that better than Brunswick, Maine native Hillary Morin Peterson.
In summer 2014, she was a University of Maine undergraduate doing fieldwork for her Honors College thesis while assisting graduate student researcher Kaitlyn O’Donnell in her investigation of the invasive winter moth. Their research home was in the laboratory of entomology professor Eleanor Groden.
Peterson also was working closely with Maine Forest Service entomologist Charlene Donahue.
Peterson’s samples of native insects that prey on the invasive moth included a stingless wasp the size of a grain of rice.
A year later, after Peterson graduated from UMaine, she headed to an internship at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, supported by the Maine Forest Service. There, it was discovered that the wasp she found living in the oak trees of Harpswell, Maine was a specimen of a new species. Peterson and her Smithsonian colleagues validated the new species, characterized by translucent opal wings, large crimson eyes and chiton chrome-finished with the same iridescent green-brown color of oil on water.
And Peterson got to name it: Ormocerus dirigoius, after her home state’s motto — Dirigo.
It turns out that Peterson also found two specimens of the closely related species, Ormocerus latus, which were previously unknown to exist in North America. Until Peterson’s analysis, the range of O. latus was only thought to be in Eurasia.
Now a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University, Peterson continues to seek new ways to weaponize native fauna to help defend against the seemingly never ending tide of insect invaders.
She is broadening her research in the deadly lives of parasitoid wasps by looking into how they interact with the brown marmorated stink bug, yet another invasive insect showing up in Maine. This one is from Asia and has the potential to cause agricultural damage. She is hoping to discover which of the region’s native parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs inside native stink bugs also are targeting the newly arrived invasive stink bug.