Reproductive constraints, direct fitness and indirect fitness benefits explain helping behaviour in the primitively eusocial wasp, Polistes canadensis

Seirian Sumner, Hans Kelstrup, Daniele Fanelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A key step in the evolution of sociality is the abandonment of independent breeding in favour of helping. In cooperatively breeding vertebrates and primitively eusocial insects, helpers are capable of leaving the group and reproducing independently, and yet many do not. A fundamental question therefore is why do helpers help? Helping behaviour may be explained by constraints on independent reproduction and/or benefits to individuals from helping. Here, we examine simultaneously the reproductive constraints and fitness benefits underlying helping behaviour in a primitively eusocial paper wasp. We gave 31 helpers the opportunity to become egg-layers on their natal nests by removing nestmates. This allowed us to determine whether helpers are reproductively constrained in any way. We found that age strongly influenced whether an ex-helper could become an egg-layer, such that young ex-helpers could become egg-layers while old ex-helpers were less able. These differential reproductive constraints enabled us to make predictions about the behaviours of ex-helpers, depending on the relative importance of direct and indirect fitness benefits. We found little evidence that indirect fitness benefits explain helping behaviour, as 71 per cent of ex-helpers left their nests before the end of the experiment. In the absence of reproductive constraints, however, young helpers value direct fitness opportunities over indirect fitness. We conclude that a combination of reproductive constraints and potential for future direct reproduction explain helping behaviour in this species. Testing several competing explanations for helping behaviour simultaneously promises to advance our understanding of social behaviour in animal groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1721-1728
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences
Issue number1688
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2010

Cite this