The social world of paper wasps is full of trade deals, theories of supply and demand, and class-aware workers pushing for better rights against those who own the means of production.
Is this the much-anticipated sequel to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life? It’s actually an idea put forward in a new open-access study published in the journal Nature Communications by the University of Sussex in the UK.
Evolutionary biologists looked at 43 separate paper wasp nests in the cactus hedges of southern Spain. Over a period of three months, the team tracked the behavior of 1,500 wasps, adjusting their social environment to monitor the effects, such as altering the ratio of subordinates to dominants within groups, which changed how much work they had to do. Since wasps have some degree of choice in where they nest, this manipulated the surrounding “market.”
If a better nesting opportunity comes around, the researchers found that worker wasps will provide less foraging for their boss wasp (dominant breeder wasps) and move their labor to that nesting spot. The boss wasps then attempt to improve their working conditions and keep their workers by offering them the “best deal” – basically less work.
The study challenges many assumptions previously held about wasps and other social insects, like ants and termites. It was typically believed that their behavior was related to their genetics and social factors, such as how many individuals the nest can cater for. However, this suggests that their behavior is at least partially governed by the “invisible hand” of market forces and self-organization.
“Our findings reveal intriguing parallels between wasp populations and our own business world: a bad deal is better than no deal, so when competition increases so does the risk that you have to accept a lower price for what you offer,” Dr Lena Grinsted, from the University of Sussex, said in a statement.
“It is remarkable to discover that simply changing the wasps’ surrounding social environment has a clear effect on cooperative behavior within groups. Market forces can clearly affect trade agreements in nature, as they can in human markets: with a larger number of trading partners available, you can negotiate better trade deals.”
This isn’t the first attempt to apply frameworks of the free market to nature. Even Darwin himself found inspiration in the economic theory of Adam Smith, when generating his ideas of natural selection.