Rhythmic vibrations guide caste development in social wasps

Jan 24, 2011 by Jill Sakai
A queen paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) perches atop her nest in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum in 2006. Eggs and water droplets are visible in the nest cells. Photo: courtesy Sainath Suryanarayanan

(PhysOrg.com) -- Future queen or tireless toiler? A paper wasp's destiny may lie in the antennal drumbeats of its caretaker.

Future queen or tireless toiler? A paper wasp's destiny may lie in the antennal drumbeats of its caretaker.

While feeding their colony's larvae, a paper wasp queen and other dominant females periodically beat their in a rhythmic pattern against the nest chambers, a behavior known as antennal drumming.

The drumming behavior is clearly audible even to human listeners and has been observed for decades, prompting numerous hypotheses about its purpose, says Robert Jeanne, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many have surmised that the drumming serves as a communication signal.

"It's a very conspicuous behavior. More than once I've discovered nests by hearing this behavior first," he says.

Jeanne and his colleagues have now linked antennal drumming to development of social caste in a native paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus. The new work is described in a study published in the Feb. 8 issue of by Jeanne, UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher Sainath Suryanarayanan and John Hermanson, an engineer at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.

Paper wasp colonies, like many other , have distinct castes — workers, which build and maintain the nest and care for young, and gynes, which can become queens, lay eggs and establish new nests.

Both workers and gynes hatch from eggs laid by the colony's queen, but gynes develop large stores of body fat and other nutrients to help them survive winter or other harsh conditions, start a new nest, and produce eggs. Workers have very little fat, generally cannot lay eggs and die off as the weather turns cold.

"The puzzle has been how the same egg, the same genome can give rise to two such divergent phenotypes," says Suryanarayanan, who led the work as part of his doctoral studies.

Among honeybees, the key has been traced to the nutritional quality of the food fed to developing larvae: future queens receive the nutrient-rich "royal jelly," while future workers receive stored pollen and nectar. However, there is no evidence that paper feed their young workers and gynes differently, he says.

Rather, the new work shows that exposure to simulated antennal drumming biases developing larvae toward the physiological characteristics of workers rather than gynes. The finding indicates that the wasps may use antennal drumming to drive developing larvae toward one caste or the other.

The researchers brought colonies into the lab and hooked up piezoelectric devices, designed by Hermanson, to the nests to produce vibrations that simulate antennal drumming. When they introduced the signal to late-season nests that would normally be producing gynes, the hatched wasps resembled workers instead, with much lower fat stores.

Suryanarayanan and Jeanne previously reported field studies that show antennal drumming is very frequent early in the season, when colonies are pumping out workers to expand and maintain the nest and take care of young. The behavior drops during the course of the season to nearly zero by late summer, the time when the reproductive wasps — males and future queens — are being reared.

"We think it initiates a biochemical signaling cascade of events," Suryanarayanan says. "Larvae who receive this drumming may express a set of genes that is different from larvae who don't, genes for proteins that relate to caste." Some possibilities might include hormones, neurotransmitters or other small biologically active molecules, he adds.

Much is known about the effects of stressors, including mechanical stress or vibrations, on animal development and physiology. Intriguingly, one study found that young mice exposed to low-frequency vibrations developed less fat and more bone mass than other mice. But the wasp's use of vibration to communicate with its own young sets it apart.

"This is the first case we know of a mechanical vibratory signal that an animal has evolved to modulate the development of members of its own species," says Jeanne.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Why do some queen bees eat their worker bee's eggs?

Dec 04, 2006

Worker bees, wasps, and ants are often considered neuter. But in many species they are females with ovaries, who although unable to mate, can lay unfertilized eggs which turn into males if reared. For some ...

Uncovering behavior of long-dead insects

Jul 19, 2010

What can you learn from the 120 year-old body of a parasitoid wasp? Using material from museum collections, researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology report that they can tell how males wasps ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Morelli
1 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2011
These primitives social system are reproductions of systemic circuit of non-living ancestrals like astronomic and atoms systems. We can understand why and how the vibration is a inherited instinct that keeps the systemic circuity as a cascade of events, if we see the formula at the "The Universal Matrix of Natural Systems". The queen performs the Function 1, which starts the flow of the circuity.
LariAnn
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 24, 2011
Why can't Jeanne make the scientific observations and report the facts without bringing in something that is not proven reference the observations ("This is the first case we know of a mechanical vibratory signal that an animal has evolved to modulate the development of members of its own species,")? Nothing in the science described or observations made demonstrates or proves an actual evolutionary process or mechanism, so to mention "evolving" at all is a comment irrelevant to the science here.
Djincs
1 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2011
I wonder how ants are doing this, is it the food or something like this, after all they are from one family, and something more how they deside how much male and female "queens" to rais, is it 50/50 or they can sense the gender of the larvie somehow, if it is not 50/50.

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.