Blotchy face, big-time wasp

If paper wasps pretend to be something they're not, their peers get angry.

“Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win.” You may have heard people say this. Some wasps seem to live by the same motto.

A new study shows that if female paper wasps pretend to be something they’re not, their peers get angry.

 

The varied markings on the face of paper wasp queens show the bearer’s rank. A blotchier face means a higher status.

 

© 2004 Elizabeth A. Tibbetts

Some animals have colored markings, like badges, that show their status. High-ranking male house sparrows, for instance, often have a bigger dark patch of feathers on their breast than low-ranked birds do. The patch warns other birds to respect them.

Scientists have wondered why less dominant animals don’t sometimes develop status markings as a way to trick others into giving them more respect than they deserve. One possible explanation is that high-ranking animals must also prove themselves socially. Evidence for this idea, however, has been tricky to find.

Researchers from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, went looking for some answers in paper wasps (Polistes dominulus).

Each colony of paper wasps has about 10 queens, who fight each other and end up ranked from top queen to all-around loser queen. All the queens have spots on their faces, but each queen has a different numbers of spots, and some spots have curvier edges.

The researchers found that queens with really spotty faces—with both lots of spots and lots of wavy edges—ranked higher that those with simpler patterns did. It’s the first status badge ever found in an insect.

To test the risks of wearing badges, Elizabeth Tibbetts used model-airplane paint to change the number and curviness of spots on some of the queens. For comparison, she also dabbed paint on the faces of some other queens in places that didn’t change the outline of the spots. Wasp faces are tiny, so she learned to paint very carefully.

Tibbetts then let regular wasp queens fight with the painted wasps. The fights where one wasp had the wrong spots for her rank went on much longer than fights involving a painted wasp who still had the natural outline of spots. This showed that faking spots could mean a lot of dangerous battles. The extra fighting might help keep the badge system honest.

With wasps, as with people, it seems, it’s always best to be yourself. As the saying goes, “Honesty is a virtue.”

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