Book of the week: the Peckhams on wasps

This week’s Book of the Week is “Wasps.┬áSocial and Solitary” by George and Elizabeth Peckham, published in the UK in 1905. It is simply wonderful, in many ways.

I have been dipping into this book over the last few weeks or so, and astounded and delighted in equal measure by the wealth of behavioural observations the Peckhams made of the rich and varied wasp fauna around their home in Wisconsin at the turn of the century (a fauna to be thoroughly envious of!). Whilst the language is at times antiquated or quaint (although I found it utterly charming), they made a remarkable series of detailed observations, and light-touch experiments, to explore how a whole variety of wasp species navigated, foraged for prey, built and tended nests, and generally went about their business. Undoubtedly hundreds of hours went into the observations summarised in this book (and in their other publications).

They clearly understood behavioural variation, plasticity, and the role of learning in shaping wasp behaviour, and they uncovered clear evidence of tool use in Ammophila wasps (using stones to hammer down the soil at entrances to completed burrows) and clear evidence of something like foresight (wasps bringing prey to burrows, such that the burrow needed to be extended to fit the prey, or the prey item manipulated – legs bent or cut-away – sometimes before the wasp even tried to put the prey in the burrow). Two lessons are clear: first, the more we look at insects, the “cleverer” they seem (Lars Chittka, among others, is reminding us of that very elegantly with the papers coming out of his lab right now); second, early students of animal behaviour were neither necessarily typological nor indifferent to plasticity in their thinking, and we should be wary of assuming otherwise. But more importantly, they emphasise how important it is to get out into the field and look at what your animals are actually doing.

The Peckhams were not just close students of the natural history of wasps (and jumping spiders), they were important figures in the spread and development of Darwinian thinking in the US, especially in terms of Darwinian views of sexual selection. They were also important educators and served in the local library services.

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