How Do Wasps Communicate?

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Wasps communicate visually and through their antennae.
Wasps communicate visually and through their antennae. (Image: wasp image by Henryk Olszewski from Fotolia.com)

Wasps employ different means of communication--their antennae, without which a wasp would be deaf, unable to smell or hear, and pheromones which a queen uses to attract a mate and control her workers. Toward humans, however, the wasp’s only form of communication is through its stinger which makes it difficult to afford any sympathy toward a bug that looks a lot more menacing that it actually is.

The Mighty Antennae

The antennae are made up of a stout base that is attached to the head with a ball-and-socket type joint, and 11 short joints (12 in the male) that make up a long, flexible tip, called a flagellum. The antennae are capable of moving and rotating in many directions in order to touch, smell and hear.

The antennae are covered with short, sensitive hairs that help the wasp identify objects more effectively than we can with our fingers. There is also a multitude of microscopic hearing and smelling organs on the flagellum.

Communication Outside the Hive

When wasps meet, they communicate through their antennae. A familiar wasp might offer some of the honey it holds in its stomach, but if unrecognized, the approaching wasp would most likely just fly away.

Wasps also communicate visually, recognizing each other through differing facial patterns.

Home Defense

The venom in a wasp sting contains a pheromone that acts like an alarm to other wasps and which is also emitted when a wasp dies. For this reason, it’s never a good idea to swat one near a nest.

The size of the territory a wasp will defend varies with each species and size of the colony, but in general, wasps can detect the release of pheromones within a 20 foot radius.

Food and Pheromone

Where wasps don’t seem to communicate with each other is in the discovery of food, but a worker at the hive might communicate the need for more or less of whatever nutrient the wasp has brought by using her haste in emptying the forager’s sacs. Quick attendance might mean more is needed while a slower approach, the opposite.

Inside the nest, worker wasps, which lack the ability to digest raw food (usually paralyzed insects), instead feed it to the larva which in turn regurgitate a soupy mix that the worker needs to survive. This type of exchange is called “trophollic feeding’ and is part of the social network inside the nest.

The queen also emits a pheromone that controls the workers and prevents them from developing sexually.

Solitary Wasps

Solitary wasps don’t live in colonies like hornets and other species that build paper nests and will instead, lay their eggs where there’s a ready food supply. The braconid wasp, for example, will lay its eggs on tomato hornworms while the mud dauber supplies spiders to its young. Another example is the cicada killer, a wasp that will lay her eggs inside a developing cicada.

Solitary wasps do not attend their young.

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