Nature Bulletin No. 205-A November 6, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Wasps seem to have been unusually abundant this year. All through
late summer and this mild weather of autumn they swarmed about ripe
and decaying fruit, buzzed by the hundreds on the sunny sides of
buildings or in and out of hollow trees, sailed into houses and
automobiles, and hovered over picnic lunches. Some people, who
mistakenly tried to shoo them away, got stung.
Wasps, belonging to the same general group of insects as ants and
bees, are equally "smart" and beneficial to man. Many kinds likewise
live in colonies, with queens, males and workers, and are called
"social" wasps. Others live alone and are called "solitary". There are
thousands of members of the wasp family, ranging in size from the
tiny gall wasps -- smaller than gnats -- which cause the galls on oaks
and rose bushes, up to the big hunting wasps which can sting, paralyze
and carry away the largest spiders -- even tarantulas.
We are most familiar with two general sorts: those that build nests of
mud and are called Mud Daubers, Mason Wasps and Potter Wasps;
and those that build paper nests and are called Paper Wasps, which
include the Yellow Jackets and the White-faced or "Bald-headed"
Hornet. There is another group, called the Digger Wasps, which build
their nests in the ground; and another, called Carpenter Wasps, that
bore holes in trees, old fence posts or the stems of certain bushes.
Most noticeable this year was the paper wasp which builds a
honeycomb-like paper nest hung upside down by a short stem attached
beneath the eaves of buildings in barns and sheds, under bridges, or in
trees and bushes. Each female, or queen, spends the winter hidden in
some out-of-the-way place. In spring she gathers weathered fibers of
wood or old cardboard which she chews into pulp to build the stem of
the nest and a few shallow paper cups. In each cup she lays a single
small egg that hatches into a larva which hangs head downward and
which she feeds chewed-up small insects, or nectar from flowers, or
fruit juices. As the larvae grow, she enlarges the cups in which they
hang and adds new cups around them. When fully grown, the larva
spins a silken cap on its cell and transforms into an adult worker.
These workers emerge and take over the job of feeding the young and
building more paper cells until sometimes the nest will be as broad as
a man's hand. Near the end of the season, males and young queens are
produced. These mate, and the young queens go into hibernation. The
males and workers die.
The white-faced hornet also builds a paper nest, on the branch of a tree
or bush, containing a number of broad paper combs, one beneath the
other, the whole enclosed in several sheets of gray paper to form a
pear-shaped nest frequently more than a foot in diameter and
containing perhaps thousands of wasps. As winter approaches the nest
is abandoned, the workers and males die, and the young queens
hibernate. The hornet, which is really vicious and will attack any
intruder, is most responsible for the bad reputation given the wasp
family. There is a smaller yellow jacket which builds a paper nest like
that of the hornet except that it is usually brown and located in the
ground, or in a rotten stump, or in a brush pile.
The mud daubers are solitary wasps that build cells of clay or mud,
each kind building its own type of nest and providing a certain kind of
food for its young. The Blue Mud Dauber places one or more spiders
and a single egg in each cell. The spiders are stung until paralyzed but
remain alive and fresh until eaten by the larva. The potter wasp builds
cells like small brown jugs, which it fills with caterpillars similarly
treated. The digger wasps dig holes in the ground, in which they seal
spiders, grasshoppers, crickets or other insects for their young.
If stung by a wasp, you'll call it something besides "social".
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Update: June 2012