Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

The organization of work in Polybia occidentalis: costs and benefits of specialization in a social wasp


Nest construction, a complex social activity requiring the coordination of 3 tasks (Fig.2), was compared in large (<350 adults) and small (<50 adults) colonies of Polybia occidentalis. The 3 tasks—water foraging, pulp foraging, and building—are performed by 3 separate groups of workers (Fig.4). Of the 8 acts comprising the 3 tasks, 5 regularly involve the transfer of water or pulp from one worker to another on the nest.

Small colonies required nearly twice as long (35.4 worker-min) as large colonies (20.1 workermin) to complete a unit amount of construction work. Behavioral acts involving material transfer among workers were responsible for most of the increase in small colonies. In other words, the waiting times experienced by material donors and recipients were greater in small colonies. In small colonies workers switched among the three tasks more frequently than in large colonies (Fig. 4). This was the result of more frequent switching by generalists (workers that performed 2 or 3 of the tasks), rather than by a decrease in the proportion of specialists (workers performing only 1 task type) (Fig. 3).

The series-parallel system by which Polybia occidentalis organizes nest construction has a major advantage over the series operation of solitary wasps. Pulp foragers collect and carry loads that are 6.1 times as large as builders can work with at the nest, and water foragers bring in loads that appear to be limited only by crop capacity and that provide all the moisture necessary for the complete processing of 0.74 of a foraged pulp load. As a result P. occidentalis can collect and process a given amount of nest material using 2.6 times fewer foraging trips than would be required by the series system. This in turn means that P. occidentalis not only achieves an energy saving that probably more than offsets the increased costs of material handling at the nest, but it reduces the exposure of its foragers to predators in the field.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behavior: sampling methods. Behaviour 49:227–265

  2. Evans HE, West Eberhard MJ (1970) The wasps. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

  3. Forsyth A (1978) Studies on the behavioral ecology of polygynous social wasps. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

  4. Jeanne RL (1986) The evolution of the organization of work in social insects. Monitore Zool Ital (N.S.) [Suppl] 20:119–133

  5. Kammer AE, Heinrich B (1974) Metabolic rates related to muscle activity in bumblebees. J Exp Biol 61:219–227

  6. Law AM, Kelton WD (1982) Simulation modeling and analysis. McGraw-Hill, New York

  7. Oster GF, Wilson EO (1978) Caste and ecology in the social insects. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  8. Seeley RD (1982) Adaptive significance of the age polyethism schedule in honeybee colonies. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 11:287–293

  9. Wigglesworth VB (1972) The principles of insect physiology. 7th ed. Chapman & Hall, London

  10. Wilson EO (1985) The sociogenesis of insect colonies. Science 228:1489–1495

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jeanne, R.L. The organization of work in Polybia occidentalis: costs and benefits of specialization in a social wasp. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 19, 333–341 (1986).

Download citation


  • Material Handling
  • Frequent Switching
  • Large Coloni
  • Task Type
  • Nest Material