hy Study Wasps?

Animal Behavior is a complex subject. Each species has its own intrinsic behavior and social structure. Behaviors have evolved over the millenia subject to ecological and social pressures that might not be apparent today. Individual display varied behavior. Synthesis and interpretation of these actions and structures can be tedious without prior knowledge of possible models of behaviors. From a good introductory course in Animal Behavior one can learn a great deal about the evolutionary approach to behavior. An excellent complement to such a course is one's own virtual research project, one where the gels always work, the wasps never sting, and it never rains.

Paper wasps of the genus Polistes (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) provide us with an excellent model system. Like many eusocial insects, Polistes has been extensively studied for several reasons. Their open nests make observations easy. Their behavior can be used to study tensions between cooperation and conflict. Furthermore, genetic testing can be easily conducted on social insects because they can be destroyed, collected, measured, and dissected, while ethical and ecological concerns restrict such experimentation on vertebrate species. Such extensive genetic and behavioral studies have led to the development of extensive kin selection and kin recognition theory.

The colony structure and behavior of Polistes further benefits behavioral studies. While many eusocial insects inhabit only narrow geographical regions, species of Polistes inhabit an extensive area in various geographical regions and climates. Polistes build nests under the eaves of homes in urban areas, in barns and other protective structures in rural areas, and on twigs of bushes in the wild. Their open nests, lacking a protective envelope, allow for easy observation and recording of the caring and development of the larva and of the behavior of the colony as a whole.

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© Joan E. Strassmann, reproduction by permission only
updated 3 December 1998, strassm@rice.edu