The long, meandering branches of 2,270 live oak trees arch over almost every sidewalk at Rice University, shading students as they walk to class in the oppressive Houston heat, and creating a leafy canopy that has earned the campus accolades as one of the nation’s prettiest. One of these oaks—an especially large and sturdy specimen—stands directly outside the grad student pub, Valhalla, a dimly lit and sticky-floored basement institution where countless twentysomethings have downed countless 95-cent Lone Star drafts. 

On the branches of this oak tree there are flowers, and if you look closely at these flowers at the right time of year—as Pedro Brandão-Dias, a graduate student in biology, first did in spring 2018—you will see extremely small bumps called galls. A single tree can have as many as 500,000 of these. Inside each gall, which is only one or two millimeters in diameter, lives a tiny wasp (itself measuring no more than one to two millimeters) that until recently was unknown to science. Thanks to the work of Brandão-Dias; undergraduate Camila Vinson; and their mentor, associate professor Scott Egan, the species now has a name. Rice announced it this week: Neuroterus valhalla, in honor of the fifty-year-old bar near which it was discovered. 

Remarkably, this isn’t the first new insect species that Egan and his team have found—and not even the first that lives on the Rice campus. In the eight years he’s worked at the university, the biologist (a native Texan who first spotted galls while growing up in nearby Humble) has helped identify roughly one species per year—either gall wasps or the predators that eat them. These are intensely weird little bugs that live short, brutal lives, spent mostly inside the tumors, or galls, that they force their host trees to form. One of Egan’s finds, Euderus set, which also can be found at Rice, is especially devious: it lays its egg inside the gall of another species, then devours its neighbor alive before emerging from its body, Alien-style. Egan and his collaborators, who seem to have a flair for colorfully naming their finds, called that species Set after the Egyptian god of chaos, who murdered his own brother.

Turns out, Rice is more or less teeming with these wasps. Egan recently calculated that roughly one billion Neuroterus valhalla wasps hatch from galls on the campus every year. Gall wasps, which don’t sting, are partial to live oaks, and Houston has lots of those, so it makes sense that the city would be a gall wasp hotbed. But Set and Valhalla can likely be found wherever certain live oaks grow, largely across the Gulf Coast—along with untold other insect species that remain to be named. “If you think about insects in general, scientists by now have been able to name about a million species,” Egan says. “But those same scientists have also estimated how much we don’t know, and it seems to be somewhere on the order of five to ten million [total] insect species on the planet.” In other words, it’s not just at Rice that you can find unidentified bugs. They’re crawling and buzzing all around us, everywhere, all the time.

Beyond the gee-whiz and ick factors, this research has bigger implications. Scientists still don’t understand how gall wasps compel their host trees to grow the galls, and decoding that genetic process might prove useful in other fields. “You can think about potential applications to agriculture,” Egan says. “Many agricultural pests are gall-forming. There’s something called the Hessian fly that forms galls on wheat; blueberries have gall-formers that attack them.” If scientists can figure out how an insect forces a plant to grow a gall, maybe someday they can help farmers stop them. There may be medical benefits too. “These guys are manipulating the stem cells of their host. If we can understand that, we might get a bit more understanding of the biology of stem cells and potentially cancer,” Egan says.

In their new paper on the Valhalla wasp, the Rice team also achieved something that no one ever had with an insect: they described the new species alongside its fully sequenced genome. The identification of a species and the sequencing of its DNA usually occur years apart, with the work done by different researchers—sometimes leading to disagreement among scientists about what defines a particular species. “We’re trying to link those two steps as we get into this modern era of genomics, with more access to genome sequencing than we’ve ever had in the past,” Egan says.

When Egan and his students are collecting gall specimens at Rice, passersby often stop to ask what they’re doing. The researchers gamely point out the little bumps that appear on flowers or on the underside of leaves. “I always wondered what those were,” observers often say. So, too, did Egan, when he was a boy playing in his Humble backyard. He followed that curiosity to earn degrees at the University of Texas, Texas State, and Vanderbilt before ending up back in Houston. He’s still fascinated by gall wasps, not just in their own right but for what they symbolize about the insect world. “To think,” he says, “that right out the front door of the biology building at Rice University, which has been here for a hundred years, in the fourth-largest city in the U.S., that we’re finding an unending number of undescribed species . . .” He trails off. “It really speaks to how little we still know about the environment, even right out our front door.”