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Brazilian Wasps

In his application for the Darwin Fellowship justifying the reasons why he was planning on a trip to South America, Hamilton wrote:

My primary reason for choosing South America was the great variety of species of social wasps found there. Most of them are little known but reports indicate that social features which are of the greatest interest to my theory (i.e. somewhat contradictory to it). I want to find out something about the genetical kinship existing in colonies and swarms of these wasps by marking individuals with paint, observing their egg laying etc; also to discover whether the individuals of a colony show any discriminations based on closeness of kinship in their social behavior (Z1XJO/1/5, May, 15, 1963).[1]

This short passage makes clear that Hamilton was interested in investigating wasp societies because they were somewhat contradictory to his theory. Here, by theory, Hamilton likely meant the way his mathematical model of inclusive fitness could be used to explain the evolution of altruistic behaviors in Hymenoptera by using the haplodiploidy hypothesis. This passage also shows that Hamilton’s main interest was to assess the degree of relatedness, of genetic kinship, in colonies and swarms of tropical social wasps.

In the Notebook from Brazil Hamilton reported about his first day in the lab of the famous entomologist W.E. Kerr in Rio Claro and excitedly wrote: “Spent time walking around campus looking for Polistes nests that are hanging everywhere.” (ZIX42/1/13, Notebook 1, September 13, 1963). During his trip to South America, Hamilton collected hundreds of wasps and other insects. The ones that were not stolen from his car in Nicaragua are now stored in the British Museum of Natural History in London. He closely observed and reported behaviors and experimental observations about 8 genera of wasps, 8 genera of bees and 2 genera of ants. He collected and observed wasp nests of Polistes fuscatus, Polistes canadiensis, Mischocyttarus cassanunga, Mischocyttarus dormans, Polistes cinerascens, Apoica pallida, Protopolybia minutissima and others (Z1XUN/15).

  • [1] In the rest of this article, when quoting material from the W.D. Hamilton Archive in The BritishLibrary in London, I will directly use the sorting number in capital letters and numbers.
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