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Alternative Nesting Tactics in a Solitary Wasp

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Nesting tactics of individually marked female solitary wasps, Ammophila sabulosa (L.) (Sphecidae), were studied over two seasons at a Norfolk heathland site. Females provision unicellular nests with 1-5 paralysed caterpillars. The entire nesting cycle requires approximately 8-10 hours of activity and there is no evidence that nesting success depends on female size. Prey are obtained by hunting or are stolen from other females' nests, which are found by searching in the nesting area. Females search on the nesting area and open other females' nests at significantly later times of day and lower temperatures than those at which they are absent from the nesting area (presumably hunting) and provision hunted prey. This may reflect thermal constraints or changes in prey availability or availability of detectable nests. Hunting and searching are mutually exclusive alternatives, but because females frequently switch between them it is difficult to estimate the time costs of either. Brood parasitism is an alternative way in which an A. sabulosa female can provide her larva with food and shelter. After completing her previous nest she must find a new digging site. While searching in the nesting area she may come across another female's nest, which she opens and usually brood parasitizes if it contains prey. It is again difficult to compare the time costs of non-parasitic nesting and parasitism, this time because alternative behaviours are not mutually exclusive - finding digging sites and finding other females' nests both involve searching on the nesting area. Females might find other females' nests opportunistically, or spend time searching for them. My methods and interpretation are compared with those of BROCKMANN et al., who analysed alternative nesting strategies in Sphex ichneumoneus. The alternative behaviours in Sphex are 'digging' and 'entering', two ways of acquiring a burrow. BROCKMANN et al. included nights and periods of poor weather in their time cost measurements, decreasing the likelihood of detecting differences between the net benefits of digging and entering. They also assumed that eggs laid after digging and entering had equal chances of survival, and that a female decides unconditionally to either dig or enter immediately after closing her previous nest. A major problem in both studies is that of pin-pointing when decisions are made and hence defining the strategy set. This is particularly difficult when alternative behaviours are not mutually exclusive.

Affiliations: 1: (Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, U.K.)

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