The costs and benefits of different social options are best understood when individuals can be followed as they make different choices, something that can be difficult in social insects. In this detailed study, we follow overwintered females of the social wasp Polistes carolina through different nesting strategies in a stratified habitat where nest site quality varies with proximity to a foraging area, and genetic relatedness among females is known. Females may initiate nests, join nests temporarily or permanently, or abandon nests. Females can become helpers or egglayers, effectively workers or queens. What they actually do can be predicted by a combination of ecological and relatedness factors. Advantages through increased lifetime success of individuals and nests drives foundresses of the social wasp Polistes from solitary to social nest founding.
We studied reproductive options of spring foundresses of P. carolina by monitoring individually-marked wasps and assessing reproductive success of each foundress by using DNA microsatellites. We examined what behavioral decisions foundresses make after relaxing a strong ecological constraint, shortage of nesting sites. We also look at the reproductive consequences of different behaviors. As in other Polistes, the most successful strategy for a foundress was to initiate a nest as early as possible and then accept others as subordinates. A common feature for many P. carolina foundresses was, however, that they reassessed their reproductive options by actively monitoring other nests at the field site and sometimes moving permanently to new nests should that offer better (inclusive) fitness prospects compared to their original nests. A clear motivation for moving to new nests was high genetic relatedness; by the end of the foundress period all females were on nests with full sisters.