Reproductive division of labor is the most distinctive characteristic of the social Hymenoptera; some individuals reproduce and others forego their own reproduction to raise non-descendant offspring. In species where females are reproductively totipotent and lack morphologically distinct castes, there is potential for reproductive conflict because more than one female in a colony may attempt direct reproduction.
I focused my dissertation research on a subtropical population of the primitively eusocial paper wasp, Mischocyttarus mexicanus, to investigate the initiation, establishment, and development of the colony before the emergence of adult offspring. Female M. mexicanus exhibit variation in behavior and task performance, and switch between reproductive and non-reproductive roles. These changes in behavior and reproduction may be influenced by social context.
In three studies, I investigated the role of social context on reproduction, behavior, and brain structure. In the first study, I tested the role of body size, reproductive potential, and immediate egg-laying potential on the reproductive tactic employed by females. I found that large females either became solitary foundresses or became part of a group-initiated colony. In contrast, small females left their natal colony and pursued joining other colonies. This joiner tactic is unique to this population and has not been observed in temperate zone populations. I also found that subordinate females had the potential to lay eggs if given the opportunity. This suggests an incentive to remain in a colony for future opportunities of direct reproduction.
In the second study, I investigated the effect of three variables on non-nestmate acceptance: non-nestmate age, stage of colony development, and non-nestmate aggressive behavior. I demonstrated that non-nestmate acceptance was context-dependent. Both non-nestmate age and stage of colony development had an effect on the proportion of accepted non-nestmates. Although, non-nestmate aggressive behavior did not affect non-nestmate acceptance, it did trigger an aggressive response from colony nestmates.
In the third study, I assessed the relationship of Mushroom Bodies (MB) volume, the brain neuropils associated with learning and memory, to environmental conditions and social interactions. I compared MB volume of newly-established colonies initiated by solitary foundresses to groups of foundresses. In addition, I performed laboratory experiments to differentiate between the effect of environmental conditions and social interactions. I found a positive relationship between MB volume and environmental conditions including light intensity and foraging experience. In contrast to previous studies, I found no association between MB volume and social interactions. Ovary development was positively correlated with MB development. This result suggests that although reproductive dominance is established in newly-initiated colonies, social dominance may not yet be established.
In summary, my studies found an effect of social context on behavior, adoption of reproductive tactics and brain structure in colonies of M. mexicanus during the offspring pre-emergence phase.