Market Dynamics in Paper Wasp Nests Change with Supply and Demand

Researchers from the University of Sussex have just discovered that paper wasps engage in market theory dynamics when forging partnerships. When “boss” wasps are competing for partners, they’ll sweeten deals to encourage a helper wasp to stick around. The findings are in a paper that was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Market theory has often been applied to the animal kingdom. Negotiation and trading are common behaviors in social animal societies. In paper wasp (Polistes dominula) populations, the dominant breeders employ the help of subordinate wasps. These wasps help raise the breeder’s offspring in exchange for housing in the dominant wasp’s nest.

A team of scientists designed an experiment to test if outside forces affected trading deals in paper wasp populations. While there has been a lot of previous research showing that market theory can apply to animal societies, none of the studies had taken the “surrounding market” into consideration. The team predicted that modifying the number of nests and available helpers would change the wasps’ trading dynamics.

Researchers recorded the activity of 43 paper wasp nests throughout Spain. The team marked individual wasps with paint for quick identification. In total, the researchers observed about 1500 wasps. The researchers manipulated the nests by adding additional housing options for helper wasps. They did this by capturing and releasing subordinate wasps at another site, freeing up nest space.

The research team found that when alternative nesting options were available, subordinate helper wasps spent less time foraging and helping their dominant partners. The dominant breeding wasps had to compete with each other to find partners in these modified nests. This led the dominant wasps to offer nest space for less work—the subordinate wasps didn’t need to help much to stay in the nest. This shows that outside influences need to be taken into account when applying market theory to animal populations.

Paper wasp trade dynamics change as the market changes. When subordinate wasps have more nesting options, dominant wasps compete to win them over. In exchange, the subordinates don’t have to do as much work to stay in their partner’s nest. The findings show that it’s necessary to consider the surrounding market when predicting an animal’s behavior based on market theory.


Grinsted et al. Market forces influence helping behaviour in cooperatively breeding paper wasps. Nature Communications (2017).

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