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Wasps drum with their stomachs to tell each other about food

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WASPS literally drum up interest in food, banging their abdomens against the walls of their nest to inform their nestmates that food is available.

We have known since the 1960s that several species of wasp perform "gastral drumming" from time to time – banging their abdomens against their nest walls in a series of short bursts.

From New Scientist April 15 2018

 

The scientists who first reported this behaviour thought it may be a signal that the wasps were hungry. Meanwhile, other researchers suggested the wasps might be telling nestmates about food sources. Such "recruitment" behaviour is common in social animals, from house sparrows to naked mole rats.

Benjamin Taylor at the City University of New York and his colleagues have now put the two ideas to the test. The team took six colonies of German yellowjacket wasps (Vespula germanica) and housed them in artificial nests.

The wasps were allowed to freely forage for a day, but the next day they were shut in and given only water, or a sucrose solution. On the third day, the exit was opened again.

Drumming declined when the wasps were given only water, suggesting it was not a signal of hunger. The wasps drummed more when sucrose was offered, and the levels of drumming consistently returned to a baseline level on the third day. This suggests that the wasps drum to alert each other to the presence of food (The Science of Naturedoi.org/cm4d).

It is not clear whether the drumming conveys anything about the location or amount of food. Honeybees famously perform an ingenious "waggle dance" to tell each other about food sources. The angle of the dance points the way, its length reveals the distance from the hive, and the number of runs in each dance gives an indication of the food's quality.

Might the drumming be the wasp version of the waggle dance? There are some tentative hints.

"It's amazing how bouts might only include a couple of drums in one instance, and in others it can last for several minutes," says Taylor. "The thought here is that it might contain more information about the resource."

It is an exciting possibility, says Amy Toth at Iowa State University. "If so, this behaviour would stand as one of the most complex known recruitment signals in animal societies, akin to the waggle dance of honey bees."

It is also possible that wasps might send negative feedback signals, for instance warning each other off poor food sources, says James Marshall at the University of Sheffield, UK. Such signals have been seen in honeybees and ants, and "enable really sophisticated collective behaviour".

Such signalling could change our perception of wasps. "These creatures, despite their interesting biology and ecological importance, have been much maligned and misunderstood alongside their much more popular bee cousins," says Toth.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Wasps drum to tell others of food"

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