book review

The Social Biology of Wasps

by Kenneth G. Ross and Robert W. Matthews (ed.)

This book was published in 1991 so it’s certainly not hot off the presses but I’ve recently read it and thought it was worth a Review.

The Social Biology of Wasps is a collection of chapters written by different authors, which can sometimes make the book repetitive but for the most part this volume maintains a consistency of quality and focus that keeps the whole tied together.

The title of this book is key. As much as I would love “The Biology of Social Wasps” this book is more focused than that, instead detailing Social Biology of Social Wasps. The positive side to this focus is that it allows the subject of sociality in the vespids to be explored in great detail, but the negative result is that natural history and basic biology of most species is not discussed in any detail. In this book it allows a more focused discussion, but I would occasionally find it frustrating to find the asnwers to basic questions about the species discussed (what do they eat, what are their nests like, what’s a typical life cycle?) missing or mentioned only in passing in a way that made it difficult to connect some of the arguments of social theory with the species subjects of said arguments/theories.

The first half of the book is called “The Social Biology of the Vespidae”. The chapters in this section begin with two chapters detailing some background on the family tree of Vespidae (where the subfamilies fit) and a very brief overview of the solitary and presocial vespids.

The next six chapters overview the social biology of different groups of vespids. The first, Stenogastrinae, was fascinating to me because it was a group I had never heard of. Stenogastrines are also known as hover wasps and because they’re in the tropics they haven’t received as much study as the temperate wasps. A quote from this chapter will illustrate some of the fascination I felt: “Authors… described with wonder their hovering flight… their shy habits, and their strange, camouflaged nests hidden in the wet and dark parts of the jungle, hanging from roots and threadlike fungi along streams and near the spray of waterfalls.” Another highlight from the chapter on hover wasps was the illustrations of their varied nest architecture, which range from cells lined up in a stack along a stem to cells arranged in a ring, facing inward, creating a donut shaped nest.

There are excellent drawn illustrations through the volume, many done by Amy Bartlett-Wright. Amy is a scientific illustrator and artist who has been doing this now for 35 years. Check out her website:

These chapters overviewing the subfamilies do well to illustrate what we know and what awaits further study in the social biology of these wasps. They often highlight similarities between strategies but also fascinating differences. One of the comments mentioned multiple times through the book is the influence that ants have had on wasp evolution, as there have been suggestions that they have driven many of the nest designs and defensive strategies of these insects by their relentless ubiquity. A quote that describes this: “There is no potential nesting site in the tropics that is entirely free of ants, many of which readily accept wasp brood as food. It seems likely that the Azteca-wasp nesting associations [an association where Polybia wasps nest inside the nests of Azteca ants, using them as unwitting guards against more dangerous ants] are only the most conspicuous examples of ant-wasp interactions, and that further study will reveal that swarm-founding wasps have as many “words” for ants as Inuit have for snow.”

As I mentioned earlier, these overviews could have done with a little more natural history in my opinion, but as the focus of the book is on the sociality of the wasps, the brevity of such information can be forgiven (the book is already 600 pages long minus the references section).

The second half of the volume is titled “Special Topics in the Social Biology of Wasps”. This half of the book is where repetition between chapters occurs, but usually it’s helpful rather than hindering. Most of the chapters take a particular aspect of the wasps’ biology and use it as a lens to view their sociality through it, demonstrating the various pressures or influences that piece of the puzzle has. For excample, three chapters in a row are about Nutrition, Genetics, and Nest Architecture. Each of these chapters looks at the Social Wasps through their particular focal point and illustrates how it could have provided an impetus for these insects to gain sociality, or at least start them on the path they’re on now. Because of this, it can be repetitive, but usually the repetition reinforces the fact that these are distinct, but not mutually exclusive influences on the evolution and maintenance of sociality. They should be looked at as pieces of the same puzzle, rather than all-encompassing explanations by themselves. One of the most intriguing chapters for myself was Robert L. Jeanne’s chapter “Polyethism” which convincingly demonstrated how individual behaviour can lead to sociality and even maintain it in the colonies of these wasps today, mostly through the comparison of direct reproductive fitness and indirect reproductive fitness.

The chapters on the nests of Social Wasps are fascinating as well, because a nest is something constructed not by an individual as in birds, but by a group of cooperating insects (in many cases, several generations of cooperating insects). These chapters are illustrated with some of the more bizarre nest arrangements (as well as the more familiar) and demonstrate some of the ways in which nest types could develop in relation to each other.

The chapter on the exocrine glands was not particularly fascinating to me, and felt somewhat out of place, since no other chapter dealt with physiology/anatomy of the subject species.

The final chapter, “Evolution of Social Behavior in Sphecid Wasps” was an excellent overview of Sphecid wasps’ social biology. This chapter gave plenty of examples of the diverse paths wasps have evolved down, and the many questions that are raised by viewing comparatively wasps and bees.

Because this book was published almost 30 years ago now, I’m sure that much would be updated and edited in a newer edition. Some of the questions raised will have been answered, many would have branched into further questions. I’m not a professional Social Wasp Biologist, and so I can’t say what those answers are, where the questions now lie, of the focus of such studies are now. I can tell you that as far as I know, there is no other overview volume like this one for Social Wasps. So if you’re fascinated by them like I am and can handle dense science writing, then dive in and learn to appreciate the incredible insect societies that blossom and buzz all around us.