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‘Social distancing’ in paper wasps!

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

We all must have seen a small, papery nest attached by a thin stalk to the wall. It is likely to be the nest of paper wasps. Interestingly, the nest does not only ‘look’ like paper, but is actually made of paper, which the wasps make from cellulose!

Like the honeybees, a paper wasp colony, too, has only one female which reproduces. This reproducing female is called the queen. Other females (workers), on the other hand, are assigned tasks like getting back food for the colony and raising young ones.

For now, let’s take a careful look at the nest of a paper wasp and the individuals of the colony. Check out this photo of a paper wasp nest. Do you wonder why each individual wasp is where it is? Do wasps move around the whole nest and take any available spot or do they stick to specific spots? Do wasps performing specific tasks take up specific spots on the nest?

These are exactly the questions which are answered by Dr. Nitika Sharma and Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar, researchers at CES, IISc Bangalore.

For understanding how paper wasps arrange themselves on the nest, they brought back 6 wasp nests to the lab. To identify individuals, each wasp was colour coded with safe paint. Video cameras were then placed in front of the nests and they were observed for 10 active hours, for 3 consecutive days.

Six wasp nests were brought back to the lab
Each wasp was uniquely colour coded with safe paint

Careful analysis showed that wasps do not roam around randomly on the nest and most wasps have areas on the nest where they restrict themselves! Workers which are assigned the task of getting back food, are found on the periphery of the nest while those which feed larvae are found at the centre of the nest! Wasps which feed larvae were also seen moving around more than others. Researchers think this might be because in a nest, eggs are laid randomly across days, in different cells. So, while some cells might have eggs, a few other cells might have larvae which need to be fed, and some other cells might have pupa! Moving around continuously might keep them informed about the development of their young ones! Such arrangement of wasps on the nest allows for effective food distribution.

But the spatial segregation does not end here! Interestingly, the queen actively avoids wasps which leave the nest for finding food! Researchers think this might be because once wasps leave their nest, they have high chances of catching infections. In a wasp colony, it is only the queen which reproduces. If she catches an infection, the colony will be doomed. And that is why, probably, she distances herself from the wasps which can transfer her infections!

Looks like the ‘primitive social insects’, as paper wasps are usually referred to, sure have known the importance of ‘social distancing’ way before us!

The next time you see a wasp nest, think a million times before destroying it! They will not harm you if you do not harm them! Observe the nest instead, and think about how chaotically organised, it is! 😊 But remember to not go too close, because if disturbed, they can sting! Sting real bad!

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