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!
Adventures of a
Dr Patrick Kennedy, Radford Lab, University of Bristol | Zoology