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Interactive learning activity: Home location by digger wasps
Author Paul Kenyon

This interactive exercise complements a web page describing the use of ethological techniques to investigate animal behaviour.

Tinbergen's experiment on home location by digger wasps
Adult female digger wasps, Philanthus triangulum, build nests in sand. The nest consists of an entrance tunnel leading to several 'rooms' each containing a developing larva. The wasp catches bees on hunting trips and stores this food in each room occupied by a larva. This behaviour begs several questions:

Point to ponder:

  • You can probably think of ways to answer the first two questions. Tip you need some way of identifying individual wasps and their nests.

Tinbergen carried out an elegant experiment to answer the last question:

Training conditions

Testing conditions


These diagrams show the arrangement of pine cones during training and testing. The animation shows the wasp's flight behaviour during training and test conditions. You may need to watch it repeat a few times to understand what is going on.

Solution : When the cones drenched in pine oil (scented plates) were moved to one side of the real nest and the pine-cone circle and non-scented plates to the other, the wasp choose to alight on the pine cones. She ignored the scented plates.
Click here to reveal the layout used by Tinbergen.

References: Tinbergen, 1951. The Study of Instinct . Oxford University Press, London.

Tinbergen, 1974. Curious Naturalists, Penguin Education,Middlesex.


Points to ponder:

  • Can you think of a criticism of this experiment?
  • Does the use of pine oil as the olfactory cue unambiguously rule out the possibility that wasps use smell as well as visual cues to locate their nest? Hint: Do the pine cones give off an odour?
  • Would it have been better to use some other type of odour?
  • Can you think of a way to test whether the wasp uses the geometric configuration of cones rather than cones per se as a landmark?



Interactive learning activity

Tinbergen conducted a further experiment to see if wasps use scent to navigate.

  • A wasp was trained to use pine cones and scented plates (plates drenched in pine oil) as landmarks to its nest
  • Your task is to lay out each element in the interactive test area in an arrangement that could be used to test if wasps use scent or vision to locate their nest
  • You can move elements in the test area by clicking and dragging them with your mouse
  • Then click the wasp to see where it alights

Key to moveable elements
in 'Interactive Test Area'

Scented plates Nest Unscented plates


Interactive Test Area: Arrange moveable elements to test if wasps use scent or visual cues to locate nest area