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The Making of a Queen: Road to Royalty Begins Early in Paper Wasps

ScienceDaily (May 19, 2010) — Social status in paper wasps is established earlier in life than scientists thought, says a study published this month in the journal PLoS ONE.

While many social insects have distinct social classes that differ in appearance and are fixed from birth, paper wasp society is more fluid -- all castes look alike, and any female can climb the social ladder and become a queen. Now, molecular analysis reveals that paper wasp social hierarchy is less flexible than it appears. Queens diverge from their lower-status sisters long before they reach adulthood, scientists say.

Slender reddish-brown wasps with black wings, paper wasps are a common sight throughout the U.S. Hidden in papery umbrella-shaped nests in the eaves and rafters of your house, a complex society is hard at work.
Female wasps develop into one of two castes that take on different roles within the nest. While young queens don't work and eventually leave the nest to reproduce and rule colonies of their own, workers forgo reproduction and spend their lives defending the nest and raising their siblings.

"All offspring look alike but some work and some don't," said lead author James Hunt, currently a visiting scholar at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC. "The workers are the ones that fly out and sting you if they feel their colony is threatened."

Hunt and his colleagues wanted to find out if hidden molecular mechanisms set some paper wasps on the path to becoming workers, and others to becoming queens. "Many scientists think that paper wasp social status isn't decided until they are adults, but some think there is more to it than that," said Hunt, also a biologist at North Carolina State University.


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