Journal Article

Initiation of absconding-swarm emigration in the social wasp <i>Polybia occidentalis</i>

Peter J. Sonnentag and Robert L. Jeanne

in Journal of Insect Science

Volume 9, issue 1
Published online April 2009 | e-ISSN: 1536-2442 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1673/031.009.1101

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When a colony of the swarm-founding social wasp Polybia occidentalis loses its nest to severe weather or predation, the adult population evacuates and temporarily clusters on nearby foliage. Most of the adults remain inactive in the cluster, while foragers bring in nectar and scout wasps search the surrounding area for a new nesting site. After several hours, the scouts stimulate the rest of the swarm to leave the cluster and follow their pheromone trail to the chosen site. How scouts communicate to their swarm-mates that a site has been chosen and how they induce the swarm to depart are unknown. Video records of six Costa Rican swarms were used to quantitatively document changes in the frequencies of social behaviors leading to swarm departure. This was accomplished by going backward through the video record and following the behavior of individuals prior to their departure. Analysis of the behavior of scouts and inactive wasps indicated an increase in the frequency with which scouts bump into inactive wasps prior to swarm departure, as well as a shift in the behavior of inactive wasps from primarily receiving bumps to bumping others before departure. Thus, bumping is propagated by recently activated individuals before they take off. These observations suggest that not only is bumping an activation stimulus that causes swarm members to depart for the new nest site, but it is contagious, leading to its amplification throughout the swarm.

Keywords: Behavior; Costa Rica; tropical wasp; dispersal; house-hunting; amplification; contagion

Journal Article.  4591 words.  Illustrated.

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