High-resolution genetic markers have revolutionized our understanding of vertebrate mating systems, but have so far yielded few comparable surprises about kinship in social insects. Here we use microsatellite markers to reveal an unexpected and unique social system in what is probably the best-studied social wasp, Polistes dominulus. Social insect colonies are nearly always composed of close relatives; therefore, non-reproductive helping behaviour can be favoured by kin selection, because the helpers aid reproductives who share their genes. In P. dominulus, however, 35% of foundress nestmates are unrelated and gain no such advantage. The P. dominulus system is unlike all other cases of unrelated social insects, because one individual has nearly complete reproductive dominance over subordinates who could have chosen other reproductive options. The only significant advantage that subordinates obtain is a chance at later reproduction, particularly if the queen dies. Thus, P. dominulus societies are functionally unlike other social insects, but similar to certain vertebrate societies, in which the unrelated helpers gain through inheritance of a territory or a mate.