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Wasps: are they really yellow?

Have you ever compared the wily wasp with the humble bee? Paid much attention to their contribution to society? Let’s compare their traits. I’d suggest there is something greater than just a biology lesson that we can learn through their comparison.

There are some simple similarities. They are both six legged flying insects, they both have yellow and black stripes on their abdomens, and largely, both can deliver a sting when necessary. But they do have their differences.

They both sting.
The wasp can sting the victim incessantly, until drained of poison. The wasp sting is designed to paralyse and kill, to feed their young. There are cases of wasps pack-swarming lambs, delivering their poisonous venom, killing the high protein lamb to be parasitically desecrated, and fed to wasp larvae. Wasps have been known to kill fellow wasps within the nest, to feed their own young. And the bee? The sting of the bee is not to paralyse prey, as bees feed on pollen and nectar. Its sting is a desperate shot, tearing out the bee’s innards, which are left behind in the victim with the barb, leaving the bee to quietly die. This is the bee’s final act, not a method to protect the self, or kill the victim, rather to die a martyr for the ultimate cause, to shun the threat away from the social group, and the jewel encrusted hive. To illustrate the difference between the two, the Schmidt Sting Pain Index describes:

  • Sweat bee (bee): Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
  • Yellowjacket (wasp): Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

They both live communally.
The wasps’ lair is selfishly created out of reconstituted wood stolen from your deck, and cunningly hidden away in a sheltered spot under the veranda. The nest avoids notice until thriving with venomous activity, creating a nuisance that must be eliminated. The bees’ retreat, however, often resides well amongst humans, often within a purpose built kennel, or hive. Indeed, the bee, although not domesticated, may be farmed, usually by smiling, bearded men in colourful woolly jumpers, imitating their fuzzy stock. There is usually little point in destroying the mild mannered, productive hive.

They both display certain levels of differentiation, and trust, within their group.
The wasp’s group does show limited levels of specialisation. There is a Queen (sometimes multiple within one group), and there are drones. However, the wasp doesn’t display any significant loyalty to other resident wasps. When the chips are down, a wasp is a wasp is a wasp. Orphaned wasps will happily join any wasp group, if it suits their own selfish purpose. In fact, all wasps ultimately become orphans in autumn, when nests break down, the Queen enters hibernation, and wasps fend for themselves, with most males dying in the cold winter months. The bee on the other hand, operates within a highly diverse (or eusocial) group, with members displaying intricate differences in role and behaviour. A Queen, drones, scouts, worker bees, are among the many roles that operate within a mature hive. When aggregating all specialisations into a group, an efficient and highly diverse hive is created. Bees also display extreme forms of kin altruism, where hive members favour their fellow hive kin (their own brothers and sisters) over other unrelated bees. This kin favouritism even extends to risking the individual’s survival and/or reproduction, to protect closely related bees. A large and active wasp nest is seen as parasitic, somewhat selfish and dangerous, a large bee hive a positive and productive source of good.

There is no research on communication between wasps. What need is communication for something so selfish? The bee however, when finding a source of food, displays a fascinating dance known as the waggle dance. This waggle is based on the location of the hive, the location of the food source, and the zenith of the sun. This dance conveys the location of the food source to other bees, that they, too, may venture forth informed of the location of the nectar for harvesting. Bees not only show a complex means of communication, they also display the ability to learn tasks which goes beyond simple conditioning, where bees display associative learning and memory skills. Wasps simply don’t have the brain power to be this clever.

Perhaps most important is the combination of all of these traits. What can a yellow, flying, six legged insect, operating in a group, really create, achieve and contribute?

Wasps create fear and loathing, and not much else. They create no useful products, living a selfish existence, parasitically living off your deck wood, killing new lambs and other insects. In doing so, they inadvertently provide an element of insect control. Unfortunately this is usually through murdering caterpillars, which would otherwise mature into spectacular butterflies or intriguing native moths. Surely, this is a debateable ‘benefit’ of the wasps’ existence. In contrast, bees feed on and collect pollen and nectar (not lambs or other insects). The bee retreats to the hive with its leg sacks or scopa filled with yellow nectar, to industriously build a beeswax honeycomb, and manufacture honey for the group. This energy and nutrient rich store is distributed amongst the group for the benefit of all. Drones, scouts, workers, the Queen (and often the bearded apiarist), all play a part in the creation and enjoy the fruits of the group’s labour. In doing so the bee enhances the garden while collecting nectar, by providing a pollinating vector, delivering pollen between flowers and fruiting trees. It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees. In doing this, bees not only create delicious honey, but contribute to global ecology and food production.

When we compare the two in an evolutionary sense, whether wasps are bad and bees are good, the wasp is an ancestor to the more highly evolved bee. Simply put, bees are highly specialised forms of wasps. Therefore bees would not exist without wasps; it’s just that the wasp never seemed destined for greater things. It’s difficult to compete with the bee, considered the highest form of insect life.

Fortunately, anthropomorphism went out of style in the 80s along with permed hair, leg warmers and moustaches. And so we shouldn’t attribute human characteristics to wasps, or bees. But I would like to draw an analogy here between those that operate in ‘waspish’, selfish, self preserving manner, and those that conduct themselves in a ‘bee-like’ manner, being co-operative, communicative and contributing to the group.

From bee and wasp comparison, it’s clear to see individuals can prosper and succeed on their own. A smart individual alone can probably do quite well for themselves. But when individuals work in a collaborative group, selflessly foster new growth and progression in kin, and allow differentiation and specialisation to develop as the bee does, something synergistic can occur. Something greater than the task at hand can emerge, returning rewards not just to the individual, even further than the group, but to the world and others around them. The bee may seem to be just making honey, but in doing so, contributes to a third of the human food supply, (which fails to mention the contribution to food supplies for other animals and plants, with which bees and humans share the earth).

When I first began at Intergen, I understood this to be one of the main motivations for people to turn up to work each day. The opportunity to contribute as a motivated group of individuals, to create something that was interesting, useful, and positively affected those that it was made for. Not just software or technology, not just a pay cheque, but the creation of something that actually means and does something worthwhile. The product (the ‘honey’ or perhaps even ‘Royal Jelly’ – a nutrient-rich substance fed to selected bees to turn them into queens, that they may venture forth and create their own hives) of the Intergen hive might benefit a client, sometimes a colleague, maybe a fellow IT worker or business associate, or someone entirely anonymous.

Technology is our pollen and nectar. It’s what we feed on, it’s what we share around, and it’s what we create things out of. In the best of cases, the solution not only meets a need, but has benefits in new, unexpected and delightful ways. In fact, it’s our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): “Everyone, every day, is touched positively by the things we do”.

Thankfully, I still see this motivation and contribution within our hive, to participate in and create something greater, as each individual waggles their own little dance at Intergen. In this way, we like to think that Intergen is not just yellow in colour, but Yellow in spirit.

Which leads us back to the initial question: Is the wasp really Yellow? The wasp and the bee are both yellow in colour. However the ‘bees’ at Intergen would like to think that being Yellow is about something further reaching than just colour, and that we might emulate the spirit of the great yet humble honey bee.

Posted by: Ashley Petherick | 07 November 2007

Tags: Collaboration, BHAG

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