Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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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