For the first time, researchers have found nests of a social insect with helpers that are neither close kin nor slaves.
In the wasp species Polistes dominulus, about a third of females nest with an unrelated female. In the arrangement, one becomes the queen and the other submits to a nonreproductive working life, reports David C. Queller of Rice University in Houston. He and his Rice colleagues cooperated with a team from the University of Florence on the wasp-helper analysis, published in the June 15 Nature.
When social insects forgo their own chance for reproduction to help raise close relatives, the strategy makes sense to people: The next generation that the insects are raising carries many of their genes.
Researchers have also known of wasp households with unrelated members. In one arrangement, two females sometimes work together to start a colony, but usually, both keep reproducing.