New eggs laid here
The tiny black dots around this larva are parasitoids! It's wasps all the way down...
Large larvae, preparing for pupation
The wasp waist
Why study wasps?
Black eyes mean that this wasp has only recently pupated
A Belonogaster nest in Ghana (PK)
Wasps offer an amazing window into the evolution of social life in animals.
Since Darwin, cooperation has fascinated biologists. In a world of ruthless competition, how does cooperation evolve? And what strategies do cooperators use? Wasps offer answers...
In 1916, working in the Congo, the French biologist Emile Roubaud speculated that tropical social wasps held the answers to many enigmas about the evolution of cooperation.
"Tropical biology is, without doubt, key to solving those riddles of insect social behaviour that are still mysterious."
Emile Roubaud (1916)
Roubaud was right!
We have loads to learn about the evolution of cooperation and conflict. And wasps - especially the many long-neglected species in the tropics - have three advantages for biologists tackling these questions...
"L'étude des formes tropicales au point de vue biologique est appelée sans doute à préciser bien des problèmes encore obscurs de la vie sociale chez les Insectes."
Wasps have rich social lives.
"It is a world human in its seeming motivations and activities far beyond all that seems reasonable to expect from an insect..."
We are especially interested in 'primitively eusocial' wasps. These wasp societies involve a complex balance of cooperation and conflict: everyone is physically capable of mating, but only one dominant individual (the 'queen') monopolises reproduction. The scene is set for drama, from sneaky egg-laying to defection, selfless sacrifice, and violent struggles for power.
There are few animal societies as exciting for exploring how social behaviour evolves.
W. D. Hamilton describing life of a paper wasp
Wasps are perfect for field experiments
If you're studying social behaviour, you want to be able to track the individual behaviour of each individual with accuracy. We can mark hundreds of individual wasps (with small paint dots or RFID tags), and build up detailed social networks in the wild.
Because nests can be so readily observed, they are often very accessible for an experimenter. We can therefore manipulate each nest to test predictions experimentally (such as by triggering a fight for power by removing the existing queen).
Wasps are diverse
Social wasps live across a huge diversity of habitats, and are also strikingly diverse in social organisation. This offers an excellent opportunity for exploring how and why social evolution is pushed in different directions in different contexts.