The Wasp Queen
As the April sun rises
on a pile of firewood, something royal stirs inside. This wasp queen is one of
thousands who mated in late autumn and hibernated through the winter. Now she
emerges into the spring air to begin her reign. Most of her sisters weren’t so
lucky. While hibernating in compost piles and underground burrows, many
sleeping queens were eaten by spiders.
Warm winters caused by
climate change led other queens to emerge early, only to find there was no
available food. And some queens that survived the winter fell victim to the
threats of spring, such as carnivorous plants, birds, and manmade pesticides. Our
queen is the lone survivor of her old hive, and now, she must become the
foundress of a new one.
But first, breakfast.The
queen heads for a citrus grove full of honeybee hives. The bees can be
dangerous if provoked, but right now they’re paralysed by the morning cold. Their
hairy bodies are dripping with sugar water from an earlier feeding, and the
resourceful queen licks them for a morning snack. Newly energised, our queen
searches for a safe nesting area.
This tree hollow, safe
from rain, wind, and predators, is ideal. She chews the surrounding wood and
plant fibres to make a paper-like pulp. Then she builds around 50 brood cells
that comprise the beginning of her nest. Using sperm stored from last fall, the
queen lays a fertilized egg into each cell, producing as many as 12 in 20
Within a week, these
will hatch into female larva. But until then, the queen must hunt down smaller
insects to feed her brood, all while expanding the hive, laying eggs, and
defending against intruders. Fortunately, our queen is well prepared. Unlike
bees, wasps can sting as many times as they need to. With such a busy schedule,
the queen barely has time to feed herself. Luckily, she doesn’t have to. When
she feeds an insect to her grubs, they digest the bug into a sugary substance
that sustains their mother.
By the end of July,
these first larvae have matured into adult workers, ready to take on foraging,
building, and defence. The queen can now lay eggs full-time, sustaining herself
on her worker’s spoils and their unfertilised eggs. Although each worker only
lives for roughly 3 weeks, the queen’s continuous egg-laying swells their
ranks. In just one summer, the nest reaches the size of a basketball, supporting
thousands of workers.
Such a large population
needs to eat, and the nearby garden provides a veritable buffet. As the swarm
descends, alarmed humans try to swat them. They even fight back with pesticides
that purposefully poison wasps, and inadvertently impact a wide range of local
wildlife. But the wasps are actually vital to this ecosystem.
Sitting at the top of
the local invertebrate food chain, these insects keep spiders, mites, and
centipedes, in check. Wasps consume crop-eating insects, making them
particularly helpful for farms and gardens. They even pollinate fruits and
vegetables and help winemakers by biting into their grapes and jump-starting
fermentation. This feast continues until autumn when the foundress changes
She begins grooming some
eggs into a new generation of queens, while also laying unfertilized eggs that
will mature into reproductive males called drones. This new crop of queens and
males requires more food. But with summer over, the usual sources run dry, and
the foraging wasps start taking more aggressive risks. By September, the hive’s
organization deteriorates. Hungry workers no longer clean the nest and various
scavengers move in.
Just when it seems the
hive can no longer sustain itself, the fertile queens and their drones depart
in a massive swarm. As the days grow colder, the workers starve, and our queen
reaches the end of her lifespan. But above, a swarm of reproductive wasps has
successfully mated. The males die off shortly after, but the newly fertilized
queens are ready to find shelter for their long sleep. And this woodpile looks
like the perfect place to spend the winter.
Source: TED-Ed Blog. Created by Kenny Coogan