My PhD has been a series of wasp-hunting forays through French Guiana, Panama, and Brazil - and people sometimes seem a bit surprised at all this South American wasping. "Surely," they say, "there are perfectly good wasps in the UK?" Whilst my wasping loyalties are definitely with the wasps of South America - from the night-dwelling Apoica in the rainforest to the spectacular armadillo wasps of the cerrado - it's true that British wasps aren't to be sniffed at. After all, we have hornets, and even devoted wasp-killing maniacs will concede that they are fairly impressive.
So, to correct the balance a little bit, here are some shots of British wasps (hornets, no less...) from a park in London, which we collected this week for a three-year project being undertaken Daisy (a postdoc in the Sumner lab, probing the very origins of sociality in the wasp world...):
Spectacular photo taken by Alice on our recent field trip to Brazil! Technically, it's a boring beetle, which seems a bit harsh.
May I present the giant metallic ceiba borer, Euchroma gigantea, modelled by Sam:
Sitting at Madrid airport on journey back from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where it's been a busy month studying a different paper wasp: the ominously-named Polistes satan.
Why are they called P. satan? I suspect that it's because the first thing you notice in P. satan is that many individuals have a black face with red eyes. Does look fairly satanic. Others have red faces with black splotches. This variation in facial colouration is thought to serve a signalling function, at least in foundresses (paper here). Here, for instance, is a typical black-faced female:
The second thing you notice about them is that they prefer stinging whoever isn't wearing the bee suit.
The third thing you notice is that they are all wearing tiny radio-transmitter backpacks.
Working with Professor Fabio Nascimento's lab at the University of Sao Paulo in Ribeirao Preto, we have once again been using miniature radio-transmitters to study Polistes behaviour. This is all part of the project I have been doing in French Guiana and Panama, and follows on from the 2007 work by my supervisor Seirian Sumner (and later fascinating experiments by Thibault Lengronne).
The four of us - Andre de Souza (post-doc at USP), Sam Morris, Alice Chadwick, and me - have spent the month in two field sites (an abandoned farmhouse and a small fazenda, both in a valley near the small town of Pedregulho in the north of Sao Paulo State). The landscape was very different to Panama: not tropical lowland rainforest for P. satan, but rather the transition zone between cerrado and Atlantic forest ecosystems, which seems to be popular with the toucans and looks something like the Yorkshire Dales with more palm trees:
Next step is to analyse the pile of data from this blitz month of data-collecting. We have movement networks from the radio-tags, aggression data from behavioural experiments, hydrocarbon samples from the cuticles, microsats for genotyping, and facial colouration for matching with behavioural histories. Lots to be getting on with!
Massive thank you to Fabio (for so generously hosting us at USP and supervising the project), Andre (who had to tolerate dragging a bunch of confused gringos around small Brazilian towns), Sam (who gallantly left his giant dinosaur ants behind to spend a sweaty month dodging wasps and piglets), and Alice (who recklessly followed her crazy boyfriend to Brazil to run around grabbing wasps). Obrigado todos!
Just written a blog post over at National Geographic's 'Explorers Journal', on recent field trip to Panama - explaining exactly why I've now been stung over 70 times for this wasping PhD... Link's here:
I'm writing this from a field station on the coast of Panama. Darkness is falling over a coral lagoon and the fireflies are beginning to drift through the grass. This has been my second field trip of the PhD, with the support of the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and after three months it's now drawing to an end. Pieter and I have encountered so many amazing things that it's hard to know where to start! Being here, it has been impossible to stop ogling at all the wonders everywhere you look - from capuchin monkeys flinging themselves through the branches to the iridescent flashes of morpho butterflies skitting through the forest. We've even stumbled upon the overgrown relics of Second World War bunkers smothered under strangler figs in the rainforest. Panama is a riot of diversity.
Every time I come back to the tropics, I fall in love with it all over again. As a bit of a wild Darwinian, it's a bit like squatting briefly in the temple of natural selection: here in tropics, there are 'endless forms most beautiful' in the most stupendous, magnificent, awesome sense possible. Can't wait to get back here!
I've been busy getting to know 17,000 baby wasps over the past two months in Panama, which explains my slight silence on the blog front. My species is the striking dark red Polistes canadensis, but we've also run into a number of other species (from the tiny Polybia to the redoubtable and oddly-beautiful Synoeca - one of the few insects to possess the maximum score on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index). Above, in a tree in the Bay of Colon is Apoica pallens, a strange white wasp because it spends the daytime huddled neatly over the brood and does all its foraging during the night.
Of course, no blog post should be without a snap of P. canadensis, so here is my PhD species in all its glory - making full use of the daytime:
These colonies are on the Caribbean side of Panama, near the mouth of the Chagres River. Here's Pieter looking out at the river as the evening draws in:
Ever wondered what a God's-eye-view of civil war looks like? No, neither have I, but I have wondered about something similar - a God's-eye-view of civil war within wasp colonies. In French Guiana last year, I did exhaustive behavioural analyses of the 'queen struggle' (the struggle for power over the colony that takes place amongst the surviving workers once the queen dies), all part of an experiment to test some intriguing hypotheses we have about wasp dominance behaviour.
Undergrad students Sinead Godson and Neil McIvor back in Bristol have been watching reams of video footage of this power struggle played out on two of my nests, and have produced fascinating projects using Elo rankings (the ranking system used in chess) to tackle questions of their own about these colonies. I'm currently working through each of my colonies to test my hypotheses. Using raw data from Sinead's work, I've plotted the dominance interactions between the wasps of one of the colonies from Sinnamary below. The colours refer to particular external information about the wasps - a categorisation system that will allow me to tease apart the behaviours.
So, if you want to know what a God's-eye-view of civil war (in wasps) looks like, it looks a little bit like this:
Watch this space as we go deeper into the social struggles of life on a primitively-eusocial wasp colony!
Adventures of a
Dr Patrick Kennedy, Radford Lab, University of Bristol | Zoology