Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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11-Aug-2011

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By sticking with the group, wasps help themselves



Polistes dominulus foundresses on a late spring nest.
[Photo by Jasper van Heusden]

What makes animals and insects like Polistes dominulus, commonly known as the European paper wasp, work together and help each other out? What benefits do these wasps receive from building their nests with strangers and serving the queen wasp? Until now, researchers have believed that the wasps are somehow benefiting their relatives by helping out around the nest.

But, new research shows that these paper wasps don't serve their queen for the sake of their brothers or sisters or cousins. In fact, many of the wasps in a nest aren't related to the others at all. Instead, Ellouise Leadbeater and colleagues say that the main reason Polistes wasps build nests together and serve their queen is because they have a chance of inheriting the throne if the queen dies.

These findings, which are published in the 12 August issue of the journal Science, suggest that some instances of cooperation in nature can actually be explained by rather selfish behavior on the part of individuals.

Leadbeater and her colleagues performed a large study in Spain, where they compared the success of wasp nests that were built by large groups of unrelated wasps and other nests that were built by a single family of wasps. The researchers found that wasps who served the queen of the nest generally produced more offspring than the solitary wasps who chose to establish nests on their own.

Some of the offspring from the queen-serving wasps came from sneaking eggs into the queen's eggs, they say. But, the majority of the offspring from these queen-serving wasps were born after their mothers took over the throne when the queen died.

So, it seems that these paper wasps aren't necessarily helping each other after all. They are helping themselves.

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