Giant Yellow Jacket Nests Continue to Raise More Questions than Answers
To say that 2006 has been a unique year for one Auburn University insect researcher would be a bit of an understatement.
Earlier this year, Dr. Charles Ray, a research fellow in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, uncovered 16 freaks of nature --- giant yellow jacket nests scattered throughout central and southern Alabama --- something entomologists previously had seen only once or twice in the course of their entire careers.
As Ray quickly discovered, this was only the beginning. Extensive media coverage following these initial discoveries has brought the number of reported super-sized yellow jacket nests in Alabama to 60 --- something Ray and other entomologists would have scarcely imagined only a few months ago.
Acounting for These Super-Sizes Nests
What accounts for these super-sized nests? Ray is sticking with his original premise: this year’s unusually mild winter.
Still, there are other intriguing questions associated with these nests besides their sheer sizes. What, for example, explains the astonishingly large number of multiple queens (pictured right) found in many of these colonies --- in some cases, as many as 100 or more?
Ray and other researchers are still formulating educated guesses.
“It simply could be a case of over-wintering young queens remaining in the nest, taking over the work of their mother,” he says.
Then again, it could be more complicated than that. One possibility is that southern yellow jackets --- the species associated with these monster nests --- have acquired behavior similar to other yellow jacket species.
Ray has raised this possibility with Dr. Michael Goodisman, a Georgia Institute of Technology geneticist who has investigated giant European yellow jacket colonies in Australia. Goodisman concluded that the multiple queens associated with these giant Australian nests, which are similar to the southern yellow jacket nests in Alabama, were recruited from other nests.
“In other words, they just flew in and were accepted,” says Ray, who believes it’s possible the something similar is occurring in the super-sized Alabama yellow jacket colonies.
Are Southern Yellow Jackets Acting Differently?
Previous research also provides other scintillating clues. It is known, for example, that southern yellow jacket queens will occasionally invade the nest of another species, eastern yellow jackets, stinging the eastern queen to death and taking up permanent residence. The eastern yellow jacket workers then accept the queen as their own.
Ray says it’s possible that southern yellow jacket queens have begun parasitizing their own species --- in other words, invading southern yellow jacket nests in much the same way as eastern yellow jacket nests.
It’s also conceivable that the sheer sizes of these nests attract new queens, he says. Still, Ray emphasizes that this, like most everything else associated with these nests, remains only conjecture --- for now, at least.
Marvels of Nature
In the meantime, Ray, no stranger to odd insect behavior, continues to marvel at these nests.
“The nest in the 1955 Chevy in Elmore County, which filled virtually the entire front and rear seats, was truly amazing,” Ray recalls.
In many cases, he says, the shapes of these nests often turn out to be as spectacular as their sizes.
Ray recalls one large nest hanging from the eave of a home in Chilton County (pictured left) “favoring two gigantic roses.” Another super-sized nest in Georgiana bore a striking resemblance to a “giant 6-foot croissant.”
He and other Auburn University researchers have managed to bring a few of these gigantic nests back to campus for further study.
“The first was [from] a mattress in Macon County,” Ray says. The second one, from Crenshaw County, involved three mattresses, a box spring and a roll of carpet.
“I brought in just the box spring and it alone contained 70 queens.”
Based on this number, he speculates the entire colony may have contained several hundred queens.”
Ray continues to work with Alabama Cooperative Extension System county and regional educators throughout the state (pictured right), monitoring for new reports of these giant nests and collecting nest samples.
While many questions remain concerning these nests, one thing is certain, Ray says. He is going be spending a lot of the winter poring over previous yellow-jacket research to try and account for this strange phenomenon.
Posted by Jim Langcuster at August 26, 2006 03:56 PM