South Africa / Travel Blog / Wildlife

Tiny kings and queens

girl termite mounds

The best way to learn is by experience. You can stare at your bird book all you like, trying to remember which dove has the green spots, the yellow eye with the red ring, the brown eye with the pink ring… but it’s after you’ve heard the different dove calls over and over, every morning, every evening, that you remember them:

I am –  the red-eyed dove, I am –  the red-eyed dove’ (self-explanatory)

Look harder… look harder…’ (Cape Turtle Dove)

Mum’s dead, dad’s dead, they’re all dead, dead, dead, dead, dead’ (Emerald spotted wood dove… quite a sad sound)

I studied Zoology for four years, and I’ve had more practical experience of observing animal behaviour- watching symbiotic relationships, fights between males, display behaviour, nest-building and mobbing- in the last couple of months than I did in four years in the UK. And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t for a lack of trying in the UK. I am a big fan of hiking, of sitting in bird hides, going to wildlife hotspots… but we lost our natural wilderness in the UK when we drove out our apex predators, so we will never be able to study truly natural ecosystems there again.

Here, however, it is a different story. Last week I was revising for a test on insects, using an excellent book called Insectlopedia to supplement my FGASA textbook, and reading about paper wasps from the family Vespidae. Paper wasps came up in my degree several times in the last year, because they make an excellent model for studying the phenomenon of ‘superorganisms’.

For anyone familiar with this term, I apologise, but to explain for any who have not: a superorganism is when a group of individuals function together as one unit, one organism. If you imagine each of your cells being able to spatially separate from the rest of you- your hands splitting into tiny creatures marching off to collect food, your digestive system a factory of workers processing your dinner and parcelling your excrement (nice image, I know), and your reproductive system lording over the rest as kings and queens. This is how ‘eusocial’ colonies of ants, bees, termites and paper wasps function.

In the bush you can drive by soil skyscrapers, taller than you, taller than some trees, castles with long turrets puffing out warm air, and if you were to dig underneath them you would find a labyrinth of tunnels extending far below the tip like an iceberg. And who should be the fantastic architects of such constructions? The tiny termites, looking a little like sickly, fat ants.

So what separates these superorganisms from the rest of us? How come they have managed to put aside their individual, selfish needs to feed and mate and work together for the good of their society, perhaps even their species? It’s communism in action, communism without conflict or invasion- socialist utopia.

The answer actually relates back to the idea of the colony as one organism- genetics. The reason why all our cells manage to work together for a common goal (our survival as an organism), is due to each of our cells carrying the same genetic material.

To comprehend the next part you may have to temporarily turn off any sentiment you have to the meaning of life and spirituality etc, and imagine life as a plan masterminded by genes, whose sole goal is immortality through reproduction. Genes just want to transfer themselves to the next generation. Bodies, populations, behaviours, nests, buildings, cars, heartbreak- they are all just results of this one mission. Therefore, if exactly the same genes exist separately (in clones, or even cells) they can work together to transfer themselves to the next generation, and specialise in different tasks, which are not necessarily reproduction.

This happens within you and me- the cells in our stomach, for instance, do not have any hand in the grand plan to reproduce, but by digesting food and supplying energy, they help the reproductive system function, which will perform the ultimate task of transferring the genes to the next generation.

I’m hoping you’re still with me at this point, sorry for any confusion. If you’re still with me, and can understand how the division of labour between the cells in your body ultimately serve the reproductive system, then hopefully you will now be able to see that termite colonies or ‘superorganisms’ work in the same way. The genes between the individuals in a colony are similar enough that they can work together for a common goal, which is serving the reproductive individuals- the King and Queen of their colony.

termites buildingWhen I say Queen, wipe out any romantic image you have of the beautiful mistress of the Kingdom, the Khaleesi-like war queen who masterminds the movements of her troops and plans to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. The Queen of a termite colony is an obese lump of eggs whose sole purpose is to push out thousands of eggs every single day, unable to move, while her workers constantly feed her royal jelly.

It wasn’t always this way. Just like Henry VIII, who went from young, handsome and agile to huge, ugly and crippled, when the young Queen originally leaves her home colony she takes her virgin flight with a long, slender pair of wings, lands and leaves a romantic trail for her prince to follow (think chemical pheromones though, not rose petals) and begins to dig a tunnel which will eventually become one of the towering castles I described before.

Okay, okay, so now I’m done romanticising termites. Forgive me, I haven’t watched Game of Thrones for a while and I need to get my fix of medieval monarchies from somewhere.

Back to the paper wasps. The paper wasps, or Vespidae, have evolved the ‘superorganism’ structure separately over ten times, as some tweaks to what we understand of reproduction means that all the individuals are far more interrelated (therefore share more genes) than in normal insect or vertebrate sexual reproduction. And the more genes that are shared between organisms, the more cohesively they work as a unit towards the common goal (you guessed it, reproduction again. Everything is about sex 😉 ).

The female paper wasps who lie alive but dormant throughout winter become the queens of the next year’s generations, emerging in Spring (which is now in South Africa) to build their first nest, made up of wood pulp mashed with saliva to make a honeycomb-like cluster of chambers for her to lay her eggs. These eggs have been fertilised by a romantic suitor she met before she went into her winter sleep, and are all daughters. Once they have developed, they are recruited into the family business and have to serve their mother by raising their younger sisters.

This continues, and the colony grows, with generations of daughters being born, serving the queen, and dying, until autumn. The queen’s supply of sperm from her pre-winter tryst finally run out, and she begins to lay unfertilised eggs, which develop into males.

As we all know, men and women cannot live peacefully together, and the birth of the queen’s sons drives the family apart, with the last generation of daughters fancying themselves the new queens and leaving the nest to search for a prince.

Romanticising again, sorry.

My point to all this was, going back to learning from experience, was as I was sitting daydreaming about sleeping princesses, controlling queens and regal encounters among these wasps, all the other students in the room had focused their attention on the large wasp who had been flying around the eaves for the last hour, and finally settling on the corner above the air conditioning, had begun to build her first paper palace.

I’ve studied paper wasps and superorganism societies, I’ve had to do a fair bit of reading about them for my dissertation, but there is nothing quite as fascinating or inspiring as looking up from your book and seeing the behaviour you have been reading about happening in front of your eyes.

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