The Short Summer of the Paper Wasp

by Shaun Kane


  You have them around the house and yard during the summer and you probably kill them on sight.  Most paper wasps measure about an inch long and are black, brown, or reddish in color with yellow markings. The most common species on Knotts Island is the golden paper wasp.  Paper wasps will defend their nest if attacked.  It's the sting of their defense that prompts you to attack them first.  There's more to them then just a nest full of angry little stinging insects.  They have a fairly complex social system and they are actually good for your gardens and flower beds.  Take a closer look at a one of their nests.  They have a lot to get done before winter. 
     In the springtime, you'll most likely see a tiny little paper nest with only two or three cells guarded by a single wasp.  This is where the whole colony starts.  The nest is suspended from a single, central stalk and has the shape of an upside-down umbrella.  Plant and wood fibers are collected by the wasps, mixed with saliva, and chewed into a paper-mâché-like material that is formed into the thin cells of the nest. The nests are constructed in protected places, such as under the eaves of your house or yard buildings, in dense bushes, or under abandoned cars and trailers. Several to several dozen paper wasps will inhabit the nest.
     The first wasp on the nest is a female who was mated the previous summer, she was mated and then went into hibernation for the winter.  This female constructs the nest, lays eggs, forages, and raises the first generation of offspring. She then stops foraging, becomes the queen, and rules by dominating her offspring of workers.  A similar life cycle is found in bumble bees.
     The first eggs begin to hatch and out come females who will be the workers and males, who will contribute to the nest a bit but mostly just attend the queen wasp.  Males aren't very dominant in the nest.  The new workers begin building on the nest and foraging for food.  Adults forage for nectar, their source of energy, and for caterpillars to feed the larvae.  They are natural enemies of many garden insect pests.  By the end of the summer, the nest has grown considerably and has many wasps living on it but there is a limit to the growth of the nest.  The females are mated and are now ready to start new colonies.  They leave in the fall and find a place to hibernate for the winter.  The rest of the wasps including the founding queen all die.
     The next time you see a nest of wasps, think about letting them stay.  If they aren't living in an area that poses a threat to you or your pets, they can help you keep the leaf chewing crawlers out of your gardens.  This will be the last time you see them anyway.  They have a lot to get done before the end of their life cycle.

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