Insectes Sociaux

, Volume 56, Issue 4, pp 347–358 | Cite as

Social wasps without workers: geographic variation of caste expression in the paper wasp Polistes biglumis

  • S. Fucini
  • V. Di Bona
  • F. Mola
  • C. Piccaluga
  • M. C. Lorenzi
Research Article


In primitively eusocial insects, caste expression is flexible. Even though Polistes species are well known to show social trait variation (e.g., worker vs. gyne) depending on ecological context, loss of worker caste in some populations of a eusocial, worker-containing species has never been documented. We report first data on geographic variation in caste expression in Polistes biglumis. We compared physiological and behavioural traits of the first female offspring from four populations that experience different climatic conditions and social parasite prevalence. We demonstrated that the first female offspring to emerge in cold areas with high parasite prevalence had more abundant, gyne-like fat bodies and exhibited lower foraging effort, in comparison to the first female offspring produced in warm areas with low parasite prevalence. Thus, the populations under severe environmental conditions produced a totipotent female offspring and suppressed worker production, whereas the population living in less extreme environmental conditions produced worker-like females as first female offspring and gyne-like females as offspring that emerged later. The existence of mixed social strategies among populations of primitively eusocial species could have important consequences for the study of social evolution, shedding light on the sequence of steps by which populations evolve between the extremes of solitary state and eusocial state.


Polistes Social parasites Social traits High altitude Temperature climate regime Flexibility Fat body 



We thank many students that helped with field data collections and laboratory analyses. Air temperature data were kindly supplied by the meteorological offices. The P. biglumis population located in Valle Stura di Demonte was found thank to Prof. Augusto Vigna-Taglianti. We are very grateful to Dr. Vittorio Ducoli, Director of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise and to Dr. Cinzia Sulli, Servizio Scientifico Ambientale of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise, for permission to work in the park. We are also indebted to M.J. West-Eberhard, J.H. Hunt and R. Cervo for their helpful comments an earlier draft of the manuscript. Funding for this work was obtained from the MURST ex 60% (to M.C.L.).


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Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel/Switzerland 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • S. Fucini
    • 1
  • V. Di Bona
    • 1
  • F. Mola
    • 1
  • C. Piccaluga
    • 1
  • M. C. Lorenzi
    • 1
  1. 1.Dipartimento di Biologia Animale e dell’UomoUniversità di TorinoTorinoItaly

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