Musings, On Animals, On Science

Musings: And Then There Were Wasps

So after my last research project, I started working on an outline for a sci-fi about a sentient wasp species. My little ninth grader buddies have all really enjoyed the premise and characters when I presented the idea to them. We’ll see if they like the finished product half as much ;P

In order to make it a true sci-fi, though, I needed to fashion a species that could exist. And while I want to humanize these wasps enough that we can all relate to them and their struggles, I don’t want it to be a story I could write just as easily with human characters. I needed to find out as much as I could about real life wasps and bring together the most interesting bits to give anyone who reads the story a ride.

I had to do a bit of digging. Like my turkey fiasco of ’16, turns out the #1 reason people want to know more about wasps is how to kill them. Don’t need much in the creativity department to come up with the answers to that question. Thankfully, though, there are some fellow wasp-obsessed hoomans out there who make their affection for the little devils public. In a nutshell, here’s some of the coolest facts I’ve learned about wasps.

Members of Polistes fuscatus, displaying individual face
patterns. Members of this species have exhibited exceptional
facial recognition between individuals.
(Photo Credit: Alexander Wild)

1. Many Species of Paper Wasp Have Unique Facial Patterns
Specifically, within the species Polistes fuscatus, individual wasps have facial patterns as unique to the wasp as a human fingerprint. These wasps also have a highly developed sense of facial recognition, almost as good as humans.

Researchers believe that the ability to recognize individuals helps to stabilize hierarchy in the nest.

Members of Polistes dominulus exhibiting
different facial patterns. More fragmented
patterns signify higher rank and an aptitude
for more aggression.
(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Tibbetts)

The facial markings within the species of Polistes dominulus certainly seem to act as a badge of rank, supporting this theory. Wasps with more fragmented black patterns are more aggressive than those with more solid markings. Researcher Elizabeth Tibbets did an experiment in which she change the facial markings of wasps and found that weaker wasps with a stronger “badge” were punished severely for misrepresenting their rank. Stronger wasps with a weak “badge” were not punished, but other members refused to submit to their rank, regardless of what was proved in physical confrontations.

2. How Do You Tell A Boy Wasp (Drone) From A Girl Wasp?

Well, for one, males actually don’t have stingers. But you don’t have to risk getting stung to find out, because there are visual differences as well. Drones have one more segment in their antennae than the females. And male wasp antennae curls.

Summer is coming to its end. I found this
poor drone laying out on the pavement after
church on Sunday. Note curling antennae.
(Photo Credit: Destyni Shirley)

Unlike bees, which have the unfortunate quirk of being ripped a part after performing tasks such as stinging or mating, the male wasp does not die after wedding the new and future queen. Instead, having performed his one useful function to the nest, he is jettisoned and left to his own devices. Unfortunately, that usually happens towards the end of the season when food supplies are scarce. With no shelter and no food, these poor unfortunate souls are often the first to go when the season changes. Only the new queens will survive the winter.

3. So Much For The “Hive Mind”
Thanks to such organized and cooperative social systems as are found in ant and bee colonies, it’s a super popular trope in sci-fi that all workers are mindless drones of the reproductive queen. Regardless of whether ot not that actually applies to bees and ants, it doesn’t look like it applies to wasps at all. They fight for dominance and create a social hierarchy similar to wolves. Interestingly however, studies done on the species Ropalidia marginata show that, at least within that species, there is a predetermination as to who will be the queen’s successor.

Photo Credit: Michael Sheehan

If the queen of this species goes missing or dies, only one worker will fight for her position, becoming 10 – 100 times more aggressive towards other workers than normal, and her claim to the throne is undisputed. It doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with age or current station of dominance, though usually the claimant is an older female in the nest. So how do the wasps automatically know who the successor is? “That’s the million dollar question,” researcher Raghavendra Gadagkar says. (Personally–though I can only theorize, as I’ve never studied wasps myself–but from what I have read I wonder if perhaps the new Queen is merely the most physically fit or developed female in the nest and perhaps pheromones are at work here? Perhaps the prolonged absence of the previous queen’s scent triggers a chemical change in the most fit female’s body, and she then produces pheromones which confirm to the others her ascent to queen?)

4. Adult Wasps Can Only Eat Liquid Foods

Remember the “wasp waist” fashion fad of the 1800’s? It squished all of a woman’s internal organs and caused digestive problems, among other things. Turns having such a narrow waist has a significant effect on the original wasp too. They can only process liquid foods. Along with those killer mandibles, wasps, like bees, are equipped with a proboscis.

Mouth parts of a hornet
(Photo Credit: Bob Friedman)

“Now wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “I’ve seen wasps attack and rip caterpillars to pieces. You telling me they do that for fun?” Well, no. That’s what the mandibles are for, after all. Once they’ve killed an insect, they chop it up into neat little meatballs which they bring it back to their flesh eating babies. In return, the babies barf vespa amino acids that the adults can eat. Check out this video to see it in action:

1. P. fuscatus demonstrate specialized facial recognition abilityScience Magazine
2. Paper wasps punish peers for misrepresenting their mightScience Daily
3. Wasps Follow Order of Succession When Queen DiesInkfish
4. No Respect for Male WaspsScience Magazine

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