Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ingi Agnarsson


Societies where workers sacrifice their own reproduction and cooperatively nurture the offspring of a reproductive queen caste have originated repeatedly across the Tree of Life. The attainment of such reproductive division of labor enabled the evolution of remarkable diversity in development, behavior, and social organization in the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps). Wasps of the family Vespidae exhibit a gamut of social levels, ranging from solitary to highly social behavior. The highly social yellowjackets and hornets (Vespinae) have well developed differences in form and function between queens and workers, large colony sizes, and intricate nest architecture. Moreover, certain socially parasitic species in the Vespinae have secondarily lost the worker caste and rely entirely on the workers of a host species to ensure the survival of parasitic offspring. Understanding the evolution of behavioral traits in the Vespinae over long periods of time would be greatly enhanced by a robust hypothesis of historical relationships.

In this study, I analyze targeted genes and transcriptomes to address three goals. First, infer phylogenetic relationships within yellowjackets (Vespula and Dolichovespula) and hornets (Vespa and Provespa). Second, test the hypothesis that social parasites are more closely related to their hosts than to any other species (Emery's rule). Third, test the protein evolution hypothesis, which states that accelerated evolution of protein coding genes and positive selection operated in the transition to highly eusocial behavior. The findings of this study challenge the predominant understanding of evolutionary relationships in the Vespinae. I show that yellowjacket genera are not sister lineages, instead recovering Dolichovespula as more closely related to the hornets, and placing Vespula as sister to all other vespine genera. This implies that traits such as large colony size and high paternity are mostly restricted to a particular evolutionary trajectory (Vespula) from an early split in the Vespinae. I demonstrate that obligate and facultative social parasites do not share immediate common ancestry with their hosts, indicating that socially parasitic behavior likely evolved independently of host species. Moreover, obligate social parasites share a unique evolutionary history, suggesting that their parasitic behavior might have a genetic component. Lastly, I analyze transcriptomic data to infer a phylogeny of vespid wasps and use this phylogeny to discover lineage-specific signatures of positive selection. I identify more than two hundred genes showing signatures of positive selection on the branch leading to the highly eusocial yellowjackets and hornets. These positively selected genes involve functions related mainly to carbohydrate metabolism and mitochondrial activity, in agreement with insights from studies of bees and ants. Parallels of functional categories for genes under positive selection suggests that at the molecular level the evolution of highly eusocial behavior across the Hymenoptera might have followed similar and narrow paths.



Number of Pages

158 p.

Included in

Biology Commons