Associative Learning of Food Odor by Social Wasps in a Natural Ecosystem

Abstract

The ability of insects to associate olfactory cues with food from their environment has been well documented with various insect orders. However, these studies were based on prior training of insects to associate odors with food sources in the laboratory or in the field with almost no evidence for the development of this phenomenon in natural ecosystems. In New Zealand’s ancient Fuscospora spp. or beech forests, invasive Vespula social wasps were attracted to odor from honeydew (benzaldehyde and n-octanol) but did not respond to a known wasp attractant (isobutanol and acetic acid). On the other hand, wasps in a rural/suburban area in New Zealand did not respond to honeydew odor but responded instead to the known wasp attractant. Similarly, social wasps in Hungary did not respond to honeydew odor, but responded to the known wasp attractant. DNA sequences of Vespula vulgaris from the two locations in New Zealand were 100% identical. Similarly, DNA sequences of V. germanica from the two locations in New Zealand were 100% identical, indicating little or no intra-specific variation. On the other hand, DNA sequences of V. vulgaris and V. germanica from New Zealand were 99.56 and 99.78% matches with V. vulgaris and V. germanica samples from Hungary, respectively. Electroantennogram (EAG) response profiles of wasps from the three locations to benzaldehyde, isobutanol, acetic acid, n-octanol and heptyl butyrate were similar. The high similarity in DNA sequences and EAG profiles, with only a behavioral difference in the response to odor sources, suggests that social wasps in New Zealand’s beech forest have naturally developed associative learning for the odor of the carbohydrate-rich honeydew. This is the first study to provide conclusive evidence of the occurrence and the development of associative learning of food odor by social insects in a natural ecosystem free of human interference. The ability of social wasps to naturally develop associative learning of food odor might in part explain why they are extremely successful invaders of new ecosystems, especially those with rich honeydew resources. The finding of our study will have significant implications for the use of attractants in wasp monitoring and control in different habitats.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Ltd. with core funds from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment and the National Science Challenge (Our Biological Heritage). We would like to acknowledge Ana Ramon-Laca and Robyn Howitt (Landcare Research) for conducting the DNA analysis.

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Correspondence to Ashraf M. El-Sayed.

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El-Sayed, A.M., Jósvai, J.K., Brown, R.L. et al. Associative Learning of Food Odor by Social Wasps in a Natural Ecosystem. J Chem Ecol 44, 915–921 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-018-0984-7

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Keywords

  • Associative learning
  • Social wasps
  • Vespula vulgaris
  • Vespula germanica
  • Foraging behavior
  • Invasive species