August 22, 2006

Are The Queens Cooperating?

Or is some other factor leading to the large number of multiple queen yellow jacket nests in Alabama this year:

Entomologist Dr. Charles Ray at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in Auburn said he's aware of about 16 of what he described as "super-sized" nests in south Alabama. .... In previous years, a yellow jacket nest was no larger than a basketball, Ray said. It would contain about 3,000 workers and one queen. These gigantic nests may have as many as 100,000 workers and multiple queens.

Without a cold winter to kill them this year, the yellow jackets continued feeding in January and February -- and layering their nests made of paper, not wax. They typically are built in shallow underground cavities.
He said the "super colonies" appear to have many queens.

"We're not really sure how this multiple queen thing works," Ray said. "It could be that the daughters of the original queen don't leave the nest or that the queens have developed some way to cooperate."

The over winter survival probably contibutes heavily to the large size allowing a longer egg laying season. The multiple queen thing though is interesting. Are they really cooperating? Why didn't the new queens move on to form their own nests? What makes these large nests a superior survival mechanism? What if there are a series of years without a die off?

Perhaps even more interesting is this:

Yellow jackets, often confused with bees, may visit flowers for sugar, but unlike bees, yellow jackets are carnivorous, eating insects, carrion and picnic food, according to scientists.
It is probably consistent that some food was avaiilable through the warmer winter. However, where did enough food to sustain a colony 30 times normal size come from? Is something dying off more than normal? Are they preparing for even larger feasts in the future?

Yellow Jacket Fact Sheet

Eastern Yellow Jacket Vespula maculifrons (the above article did not indicate if Easterns are the big colony builders):


Via boingboing.

Posted by Steve on August 22, 2006
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