Paper wasps invest less in helping the colony when other nest or colony options are available, finds a study published in Nature Communications this week. Nests are a limiting resource for the wasps and form the basis of a biological market. This biological market resembles our own economic markets, in which the supply and demand of certain commodities influences their value.
In the paper wasp, Polistes dominula, females can choose to found a new nest or to join an existing nest as a subordinate, helping to raise the dominant breeders’ offspring in return for benefits associated with group membership. Similar cooperative breeding systems are found in some species of birds, fish and primates, as well as in meerkats. Although biological market theory has been applied to understanding cooperative breeding, previous studies have not investigated the influence of outside options.
Lena Grinsted and Jeremy Field manipulated the availability of outside options for the wasps, providing empty nesting sites and alternative colonies for wasps to join. They found that subordinate wasps foraged less when they had more nesting options. Obtaining food is a necessary task to support the colony, but also dangerous for the forager. Thus, the findings show that subordinate wasps take fewer risks when they have more available options.