Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that paper wasps live by the supply and demand theory.

Paper wasps in a nest. Photo: Shutterstock

Here’s a new twist on an old economic theory: the supply and demand theory plays a role in the way paper wasps in southern Spain behave. These wasps live in small nests where “helper wasps” essentially do the housework for the dominant, breeding wasps.

Until now, scientists had assumed that this relationship was predicated on the number of helpers and their genetic relation to their “bosses.” However, by adding more spaces where wasps could build nests in the cactus hedge they were studying, more breeders started building nests, and helpers started looking for the best positions.

In this case, they sought out bosses who would let them do less work in order to be a part of the nest. Essentially, helper wasps pay for housing by doing work, and with more options, they could afford to look for cheaper housing, forcing dominant breeders to offer better, more competitive options—supply and demand at work among insects.

“Our findings reveal intriguing parallels between wasp populations and our own business world: a bad deal is better than no deal, so when competition increases, so does the risk that you have to accept a lower price for what you offer,” said study author Dr. Lena Grinsted of the University of Sussex.

This is not to say that economics can be applied to all animals, but it does open up the possibility of evolutionary predictors to market forces. Under any economic system in history, humans seek out options, choosing the best the can from those they have. Generally speaking, more choices have led to more specialization and innovation.

It’s not unusual for scientists to study animals in order to find parallels in human behavior, but it is rare to see such parallels among insects. However, since wasps are very social creatures and humans are among the most social animals on the planet, it stands to reason that there could be some genetic influence on how we formed our earliest groups and societies—perhaps even based on supply and demand—which researchers may have also discovered among the paper wasps of southern Spain.

“Market forces can clearly affect trade agreements in nature, as they can in human markets: with a larger number of trading partners available, you can negotiate better trade deals,” Dr. Grinsted said.