Meet The Slow-Mo Ninja Discovering Why Wasps Work For Others

Patrick Kennedy, a National Geographic-funded PhD student, has spent his time studying wasps to work out why they help others and what busy social lives they have.

Published 8 Mar 2018, 00:53 GMT

Anyone watching Patrick Kennedy conducting his fieldwork is likely to be puzzled by the PhD student’s slow-mo martial arts performance. The University of Bristol graduate though says it is essential to avoid disturbing the nest of paper wasps he studies.

“I’ve found that I can only avoid getting stung by approaching the wasps slowly, which ends up looking like a strange form of entomology tai-chi,” reveals Kennedy.

His study of paper wasps in both Central and South America involves both marking the wasps and attaching tiny transmitters to their throax. This allows him to track their movements both in the nest and to see if the wasps move to other nests nearby.

To capture a wasp Kennedy needs to creep up on a nest then pluck off a single one using tweezers without any of the other wasps noticing–it requires stealth, calm nerves and a steady hand.

Work That Packs A Sting

Video: Paper Wasps Get Tiny Backpacks for Study on Animal Altruism
See how a UK scientist is able to keep track of wasps and where they go as part of a study on animal altruism.

“I have been stung over 100 times and it is painful,” says Kennedy. “Someone once described it as the same as having hydrochloric acid poured onto a paper cut. I have got used to it now.”

Kennedy’s occasionally painful field work is for his PhD, which is diving deeper into the question of altruistic behaviour in animals and why they or in this case, wasps engage in it. Inspired by studying the wasps in the wild, he is part of a team of biologists investigating how altruism might be connected to risky environments. (Read: Self-Sacrificing Ants Refuse Treatment of Their Wounds).

“My study explores a recent idea for why altruism evolves: could it be a way of shielding your family from a harsh and unpredictable world?” questions Kennedy. “We decided to go right back to basics, and try to work out mathematically the conditions that would favour this sort of altruism. We’ve called it ‘altruistic bet-hedging.’”

Investment Banker Approach

Kennedy is studying the paper wasp and because the insect has a more open nest, it makes studying them easier.

Think of it like an investment banker – making multiple investments into a range of stocks and shares so if some don’t work out, there are others that could. At an insect level, it’s a way of shielding your family from a harsh and unpredictable world.

His work is already gaining attention with a paper published in Nature, which pinpoints the conditions under which shielding your family from a fluctuating environment can drive the evolution of altruism in various species – from birds and mammals to the microscopic world. The team suggest that the most promising avenues to find examples of this altruistic bet hedging is in bacteria. Bacteria make big social superstructures called biofilms that help resist radical fluctuations in the environment, so could form a promising place to look for altruistic bet hedging.

While it is clear Kennedy‘s new insights are helping develop a new understanding of what role risk could play in driving altruistic behaviour, his passion is clearly for his field work.

Hectic Social Lives

Kennedy spends a lot of time in Panama studying the paper wasps which often build nests in abandoned buildings. Their sting is particularly painful–akin to having hydrochloric acid poured on a paper cut.

“My biggest love is fieldwork: I love getting to know social wasps in the wild,” confides Kennedy. “They have got really in-depth social lives just like us and have these intense dramas and toil really hard for their families. They have intense conflicts, dramas and struggles, which is a little bit like Eastenders and a lot like humans in general. There’s a lot to empathise with wasps.”

So with all his experience of studying and dealing with the paper wasps in Central and South America, has he ever been stung by a wasp in the UK? “Yes, once, but that was entirely by accident,” explains Kennedy.

Understanding the wasp movements involved marking wings and attaching a tiny transmitter to the wasp's thorax. It works like a bit like an Oyster card registering which nests the wasp goes to.
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