Finding the Way Back Home : A study of Spatial Orientation, Navigation and Homing Behaviour in the Social Wasp Ropalidia marginata
For most of the animals, if not all, finding their way to a particular place is crucial for survival. To address this challenge of way-finding, different animals have evolved with different homing strategies. Social hymenopterans like honey bees, ants and wasps are of special interest – foragers of these insects show excellent homing capabilities while having simple neural resources. In this study field, honey bees and ants (desert ants, in particular) are among the most studied animals. Compared to these insects, our understanding on the homing mechanisms of social wasp is rather poor. For my thesis, I have studied homing behaviour of the tropical social wasp Ropalidia marginata, a predator in their foraging habit. To begin with, first I had to know their typical foraging range, which I found to be within about 500 m from their nest. Forager wasps possess a surprisingly well-developed familiarity with their foraging landscape, apparently more intricate than honey bees and desert ants. They acquire this spatial familiarity through flying around the landscape before starting foraging for food. Compared to honey bees and desert ants, this learning period in wasps appears to be much longer – this can be attributed to the much higher density of the tropical landscape in which they have evolved. I have also found that, if needed, they can fly to a distance of about 1.5 km for foraging and can return to their nest even if passively displaced to familiar and unfamiliar places. To return from unfamiliar places, they probably use some sort of searching mechanisms – a skill that they improve with their age. Such searching behaviour is prevalent throughout other hymenopteran insects. I conclude that capability and mechanisms of spatial orientation, navigation and homing in animals are much influenced by their evolutionary origin and the environment in which they have evolved.