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Wasps have good manners

Posted in Animals, Biology, Insects, Nature, Psychology, Wildlife on Monday, 20 June 2011

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This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 971 published on 18 October 1980.

wasps, picture, image, illustration

Wasps have manners

“Where are your manners?” How many times has each child heard that question in his or her life? We are made to think that if we did not religiously say the magic words “Please” and “Thank you” every time we speak, the earth would mysteriously open up and engulf us. Yet there is a reason for good manners.

If we lived alone on a desert island, there would be no one to open doors for, no one to give up your seat for, and no one to smile at. But we do not live in isolation. Our species, the human species, flocks together, and we therefore have to invent ways of getting on with each other. Manners are the rules by which we live – the normal, everyday pattern of behaviour. Good manners are the icing on top.

Humans are not alone in this kind of social behaviour. Throughout the animal kingdom there are examples of highly organised patterns of behaviour. Ants are a superb example: each ant has its own part to play – one may contribute towards the cultivation of food for the rest of the colony, while another will stand guard, ready to defend the hill from attack.

Every now and then an animal, bird or even an almost brainless insect behaves in an extraordinary manner: it seems to go out of its way to please another. This can only be described as good manners.

Wasps, surprisingly enough, have been regularly seen to act with perfect politeness to each other. In one experiment, a box was assembled around an existing nest. One side of the box was made of glass, to enable the wasps to be watched. It soon became clear that the wasps had one unbreakable rule – KEEP TO THE LEFT. This prevented any confusion and bustle leading to and from the nest. All incoming wasps went to one side, those on the way out kept to the other.

The zoologist who was observing them speculated that, as the passage leading to the nest was only just wide enough for two unladen wasps to enter and pass each other, collisions would almost certainly occur. To his amazement, they did not: the returning wasps, loaded up with carcases of flies or pellets of wood pulp, took up most of the passageway. The outgoing wasps would give way to them, walking up the vertical wall of the tunnel and thus providing ample room for their loaded colleagues.

The wasps’ good manners were impeccable. Apart from having good regard for traffic routes and congestion, they never showed any signs of irritation or aggression towards the others in their overcrowded nest.

Overcrowding is not the only stimulus to good manners. Among the African antelope the kudu, which ranges the vast free plains, the young, low-ranking beasts never lie down before a more dominant adult. If they dare to, the older animal will force the young upstart to rise to its feet and wait until its “better” has dropped to the ground. It is also totally unknown for a male kudu to attack a female.

This protection of the female appears to be a common practice in many species. The female sparrow, for instance, will savage a male, but the male will never attack the female. Among house mice it is also the female which attacks the male, never vice versa. A dog will accept punishment from a bitch without retaliation, and the same is true of game birds, domestic chickens, pheasants, spiders and the praying mantis, to name but a few.

To some extent this is due, of course, to protection of the species, since the female is the bearer of the offspring. Yet perhaps this is not the whole story.

There is a tale of a massive boxer-cross called Jason, who lived in a house deep in the English countryside with two delicate Shetland sheep dogs. One of the Shelties, Poppet, was the daughter of the other. Jason and Poppet were inseperable companions except at feeding times, when they went to opposite sides of the house to eat from their own bowls.

One day Poppet finished eating first and went to look for Jason. She arrived just as Jason was about to eat one of his last little titbits. Poppet reached into his bowl and the titbit was gone. Jason looked up mournfully, and then lowered his head to eat another morsel. Again Poppet got it first.

This happened a third time, but on the fourth occasion, Jason ran out of patience. As Poppet’s long muzzle reached into the food bowl, Jason put his mouth to her ear and gave a short, explosive bark. Poppet was off, yelping around the garden. The dog had threatened her, without physical violence.

So it was in their play. Sometimes Jason’s huge heavy paws would accidentally hurt Poppet and she would fly at him in extreme anger, biting him viciously. Yet he never made any move to get his revenge or to defend himself.

Foxes display this care of the female in an extraordinary fashion. Throughout all their rough-and-tumbles, the dog-fox shows nothing but tolerance and patience towards the vixen. Again, food is all that divides them. The dog-fox is utterly selfish in his eating habits. There is only one time of exception – when the vixen is about to have a litter of cubs.

In one family that had been under close observation, it was seen that, rather than gulping down every bit of food as fast as he could – his normal practice – the dog-fox filled his jaws with as much food as he could. This became increasingly difficult, as the more he managed to get in, the more dropped out.

When the dog-fox had finally succeeded in stuffing all he could into his jaw, he went and stood over the nursery earth and made a low cry. The vixen came out and her mate dropped the food for her to eat her fill. When the cubs were born, the dog-fox returned to his usual selfish habits.

Many birds have been seen to display abnormal behaviour. A group of starlings were once spotted foraging in a London garden, when they suddenly espied a heap of food put out for them. There was a frantic rush for it, but one starling was left behind, hobbling alone on an injured leg. Strangely, the group of birds paused at the food, parted slightly and waited for the lame starling to reach the pile. Then, and only then, the jostling began in earnest.

Similarly, a group of holidaymakers were seen throwing some bread to two sea gulls on the south coast of England. One of the gulls had lost a foot. A dozen more gulls soon flew down, but the first uninjured gull, without ever going for a piece of bread for itself, kept the others away while the crippled bird ate its fill.

There are innumerable stories of animal behaviour which is out of the normal pattern of survival, and there are many possible explanations. Perhaps the one being cared for is a bully, perhaps it is just higher in the “pecking order”, but more often the special treatment accorded to it can only be understood as good manners on the part of the others.

In 1976 a new science emerged, that of “sociobiology”, which attempts to interpret various forms of “higher-order behaviour”. If a creature has intelligence, then the odds are that there is some thought, not simply instinctive reactions. “Good manners” are undoubtedly a subject for this science.

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