Sensory basis of homing by digger wasps
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Home location by digger wasps

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Tinbergen's experiment on home location by digger wasps

This exercise complements web pagedescribing the use of ethological techniques to investigate animal behaviour.

Adult female digger wasps, Philanthus triangulum, build nests in sand. The nest consists of an entrance tunnel leading to several 'rooms' each containing a developing larva. The wasp catches bees on hunting trips and stores this food in each room occupied by a larva. This behaviour begs several questions:

  • Does a wasp return to her own nest?
  • Does each wasp have more than one nest?
  • How does a wasp recognize her own nest when she returns from a hunting trip?

  • Point to ponder:

  • You can probably think of ways to answer the first two questions. Tip you need some way of identifying individual wasps and their nests.
  • Tinbergen carried out an elegant experiment to answer the last question:

    Training conditions

  • Whilst the wasp was in the burrow, Tinbergen placed a circle of pine cones around the entrance.
  • When she emerged, the wasp reacted to the new situation by a wavering orientation flight before flying off.
  • Testing conditions

  • Tinbergen displaced the pine cones to one side of the nest, observed her behaviour when she emerged, and then waited for her to return from hunting
  • Results

  • When the wasp emerged from the nest she made several flights around the nest before flying off to hunt for bees.
  • Returning with prey, the wasp flew to the circle of pine cones even though it had been moved during her absence.
  • These diagrams show the arrangement of pine cones during training and testing. The animation shows the wasp's flight behaviour during training and test conditions. You may need to watch it repeat a few times to understand what is going on.

    Do wasps use scent to navigate?

    Tinbergen conducted a further experiment to see if wasps use scent to navigate.
  • A wasp was trained to use pine cones and scented plates (plates drenched in pine oil) as landmarks to its nest
  • Result

    When the cones drenched in pine oil (scented plates) were moved to one side of the real nest and the pine-cone circle and non-scented plates to the other, the wasp choose to alight on the pine cones. She ignored the scented plates.


    Tinbergen, 1951. The Study of Instinct . Oxford University Press, London.

    Tinbergen, 1974. Curious Naturalists, Penguin Education,Middlesex.