Systematics, evolution and biology of insects


Simon van Noort

Insects are a vital component of any ecosystem from both an abundance and species richness perspective, as they represent the bulk of all animal diversity. From conservation perspectives insects are important pollinators, playing a critical role in the maintenance and evolution of floral species richness, and have the potential to play a valuable role as indicator species in conservation and ecological monitoring. Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants) are an extremely important group of insects from both an economic and a conservation perspective. Parasitoid wasps play a vital ecological role as natural controllers of insect populations, including those that are detrimental to agriculture, forestry, and human and animal health, and have vast potential for use in managed bio-control programs. Wasps and bees are also important pollinators, playing a critical role in the functioning of any ecosystem. Some wasps and ants are pests, while others, such as the honeybee, provide beneficial resources. Ants are valuable indicator species in conservation and ecological monitoring. To manage and conserve wasps, ants and bees, we need to inventory the species that are involved, a prerequisite to understanding the role that they play in ecological processes.

Courtella wardi

The insect order Hymenoptera (wasps, ants and bees) is one of the most species rich groups of insects along with the beetles, flies and true bugs. Africa has a rich representation of wasp, bee and ant diversity with 65 of the world’s 85 families present on the continent.  There are about 120 000 described species in the world with around 20 000 of these occurring in Africa. South Africa has about 5 000 known species, but the majority of species are still undiscovered and the true species total is probably 10-20 times higher than these figures.

The task of discovering and documenting these unknown species entails expeditions to many remote, unexplored areas of Africa, as well as to our own back yards where, believe it or not, there are also undiscovered species. The small size (many only a millimeter or so in length) of many of the species, combined with the high diversity means that new species are easily overlooked. Discovery and documentation of invertebrates has been pursued on many expeditions into Africa including Mkomazi Game Reserve (Tanzania), Brandberg Massif (Namibia), Monts Doudou (Gabon), Dzangha-Sangha (Central African Republic), Kibale Forest (Uganda) and numerous excursions within southern Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa).


Systematics of fig wasps is a major interest, including unraveling the evolutionary intricacies of the 60 million year old mutualism between fig trees and fig wasps. Evolutionary processes, both at the macro and micro scale, are elucidated through morphological and molecular phylogenetic reconstruction. Research includes systematic investigation of other wasp groups such as the cynipoids, platygastrids and ichneumonoids and insect groups such as the Heelwalkers (Mantophasmatodea). Elucidation of patterns of wasp species richness in a spatio-temporal context and development of bioinformatics resources for Afrotropical wasps is also pursued.  

Current projects

Ormyrus psych

Systematics, evolution and ecology of Hymenoptera including research on Chalcidoidea, Chrysidoidea, Cynipoidea, Ichneumonoidea, Megalyroidea, Platygastroidea and Trigonalioidea.

Simon van Noort

Ph.D. Rhodes University (1992)

Curator of Entomology

Natural History Department
Iziko South African Museum
PO Box 61
Cape Town 8000
South Africa

Tel: +27 (0)21 481 3865
Fax: +27 (0)21 481 3993

Research interests

  • the systematics, molecular phylogenetics and biology of fig wasps, including the systematics, species richness and bioinformatics of other wasp groups and the biology of terrestrial invertebrates. 

Research for exhibitions and displays

Rhoophilus loe

Wonderful World of Wasps (Iziko SA Museum, temporary, exhibition currently on display until September 2012).

Darwin at the Cape (Iziko SA Museum, temporary; contributed entomological input, 2009-2010).

Biodiversity (Karoo National Park, permanent, sourced content, designed and produced displays with Roger Smith and Denise Hamerton. 2003-present).

Insects and Spiders (Iziko SA Museum – International Museum day exhibit, annual, 2000-2011).

Insects and Spiders (Iziko exhibit at Kirstenbosch Biodiversity Expo, annual 4 day event, 2009-2011).

Insect Mimicry and Camouflage (Iziko SA Museum, 1996-2003).

Insect Biodiversity (Iziko exhibit at Yearof Science and Technology Week, Waterfront, Cape Town, 1998).


Download publications: Simon van Noort

Postgraduate supervision

Current students

  • Candice Owen (MSc). Ecology, physiology and systematics of the maritime parasitoid wasp (Echthrodesis lamorali, Platygastridae; Hymenoptera)
  • Terry Reynolds (PhD). Systematics and evolutionary assessment of selected subfamilies of Ichneumonidae (Hymenoptera).
  • Nyembezi Mgocheki (Post-doctoral associate). Systematics and evolutionary assessment of selected subfamilies of Ichneumonidae (Hymenoptera).

Past students

  • Frances van der Merwe (MSc). Fig wasp cuticular hydrocarbons. 
  • Thomas Lado (Post-doctoral associate). Diversity of indigenous parasitoids of arthropods associated with the gall-forming rust fungus Uromycladium tepperianum in South Africa.
  • Emmanuelle Jousselin (Post-doctoral associate). Evolution and ecology of fig wasps. 
  • Christoff Erasmus (MSc). Fig wasp phylogeny.
  • Philippa Huntly (MSc). Improving the conservation value of insects through ecotourism.
  • Jenny Underhill (MSc). Molecular phylogenetics and co-evolution of figs and fig wasps.
  • Michael McLeish (Post-doctoral associate). Molecular phylogenetics, co-evolution and ecology of figs and fig wasps.