Ecology and Social Organisation of Wasps

Abstract

Understanding sociality is a general question in biology: it tells us how groups evolve and function, from cells to insect societies. The social wasps (Hymenoptera and Vespidae) display a wide range of diversity in their ecology and social organisation, providing insights into the origins of simple societies and the elaboration and maintenance of complex societies. Social wasps play an important role in our ecosystems and economies, for example, through their pollination and pest control services. Compared with other social insects (e.g. ants, termites and bees), the social wasps are understudied. Here the authors give a brief overview of the social wasps, their phylogenetic history, diversity in social organisation and explain how they offer important insights on the key innovations underpinning the evolution of sociality.

Key Concepts:

  • Wasps make up a huge group of social insects, yet only one‐fifth of them exhibit social behaviour.

  • Social wasps are ideal and unique models for studying social evolution as they show the full spectrum of social organisation and behaviours.

  • Across the social spectrum, wasp species show a number of key innovations that have contributed to their success, including the transition to group living, the evolution of castes, policing and swarm founding.

  • The evolution of caste differentiation has led to mutual dependency between phenotypes within species, and this is likely to have facilitated increased social complexity.

  • Studying both proximate and ultimate factors of social evolution will allow us to better understand the mechanisms of social evolution in wasps and reduce confusion in the theory of sociobiology.

Keywords: hymenoptera; social wasps; eusociality; castes; social evolution; major transitions

Figure 1.

A genus level consensus tree of the Vespidae, replotted from Pickett and Carpenter (molecular and behavioural data). Abbreviations: Wasp sub‐families O, outgroup; Ep, Euparagiinae; M, Masarinae; Ee, Eumeninae; S, Stenogastrinae; V, Vespinae and P, Polistinae. Polistinae tribes Epp, Epiponini; Rop, Ropalidiini; Mis, Mischocyttarini and Pol, Polistini.

Figure 2.

(a) Parishnogaster alternata colony (courtesy of Sumner S.), (b) Mature colony of P. canadensis showing the existence of behavioural castes (courtesy of Southon R.), (c) Mischocyttarus punctatus colony (courtesy of Leadbeater E.), (d) Ropalidia marginata colony (courtesy of Blackburn T.), (e) Colony of the swarm founding Epiponini species B. mellifica (courtesy of Leadbeater E.) and (f) Vespa tropica raiding a nest of P. alternata (courtesy of Field J.).

Figure 3.

Typical life cycle and development of a eusocial wasp (Polistes canadensis for illustrative purposes). (a) Foundress stage – females may found nests alone (haplometrosis) or as a group (pleiometrosis), (b) Queen establishment – one or a few egg laying queens are established, remaining foundresses act as workers, (c) Preworker emergence stage – brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) are provisioned by working (nonreproductive) females and (d) Postworker emergence stage – callows (newly emerged females) emerge and provision the nest, as workers. Sexual broods are usually produced later in the colony cycle, and may disperse to mate and hibernate (in temperate species) or found a new colony. Photographs courtesy of Booth K.

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Further Reading

Bourke AF (1988) Worker reproduction in the higher eusocial Hymenoptera. Quarterly Review of Biology 63(3): 291–311.

Bourke AF (1999) Colony size, social complexity and reproductive conflict in social insects. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 12: 245–257.

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Ross KG and Matthews RW (1991) The Social Biology of Wasps. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turillazzi S and West‐Eberhard MJ (1996) Natural History and Evolution of Paper Wasps. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

West‐Eberhard MJ (1982) The nature and evolution of swarming in tropical social wasps (Vespidae, Polistinae, Polybiini). In: Jaisson P (ed.) Social Insects in the Tropics, 97–128. Paris: Universite de Paris Nord.

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Bell, Emily, and Sumner, Seirian(Mar 2013) Ecology and Social Organisation of Wasps. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023597]