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Naturwissenschaften. 2005 Sep;92(9):427-30. Epub 2005 Oct 28.

The role of moisture in the nest thermoregulation of social wasps.

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Wood Laboratory, EMPA-Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, 8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland.


Paper nests of social wasps are intriguing constructions for both, biologists and engineers. We demonstrate that moisture and latent heat significantly influence the thermal performance of the nest construction. Two colonies of the hornet Vespa crabro were investigated in order to clarify the relation of the temperature and the moisture regime inside the nest. Next to fairly stable nest temperatures the hornets maintain a high relative humidity inside the nest. We found that in consequence a partial vapor-pressure gradient between nest and ambient drives a constant vapor flux through the envelope. The vapor flux is limited by the diffusion resistance of the envelope. The driving force of vapor flux is heat, which is consumed through evaporation inside the nest. The colony has to compensate this loss with metabolic heat production in order to maintain a stable nest temperature. However, humidity fluctuations inside the nest induce circadian adsorption and desorption cycles, which stabilize the nest temperature and thus contribute significantly to temperature homeostasis. Our study demonstrates that both mechanisms influence nest thermoregulation and need to be considered to understand the thermodynamic behavior of nests of wasps and social insects in general.

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