Bug of the Week

Paper Wasps and Hornets (Polistes sp.)

Greetings BugFans,

Paper wasps chew on pieces of cellulose (bark, paper, etc), mix them with saliva, and spit out paper. The queen starts the nest, laying down the first cells and caring for the first brood of workers. When they mature, the queen retires to a life of egg-laying leisure, and the workers care for her, make hive cells, maintain the inner and outer walls of the nest, and forage for insects and pollen.

Paper wasp building a nest Paper wasp nest
Paper Wasp building a nest
 Hornet nest

Wasps are in the order Hymenoptera ("membranous wings"), which includes the bees and ants and horntails and sawflies. Not all hymenopterans are social/colonial, but the order contains many colonial groups. The workers are all females, and in many groups the egg-laying structures (ovipositors, for you classical language scholars) have been modified into stingers. The males make a once-a-year appearance for nuptial flights, they die after mating, and the new queens start a new colony.

Communal wasps are somewhat aggressive when feeding, but are the poster child for "aggressive" near their nests. Not only will individual wasps take issue with your presence, they will release a pheromone—an airborne communication—that incites the rest of the inhabitants to riot. This touchiness is backed up by an ability (not shared by their honeybee cousins, which sting once and die for the cause) to sting over and over.

Paper Wasp nest hiden in a tree
A hornet nest hidden in the trees

Bald-faced hornets are another group that constructs a paper nest. Their homes may contain 300 workers and may be so well-camouflaged that people can get much too close to them before seeing them, and may not hear the Hornet bugles blowing “Charge” until the airborne attack is well underway.

In late fall, the queen jumps ship and goes south - borrowing into the ground not far from her summer nest. There, she will overwinter. She has a little extra fat, which allows her to survive and which reinforces the Darwinian concept of "Survival of the Fattest." The workers stay in the nest, stop caring for the larvae (and, in fact, may eat them) and they eventually die. But, taking one of those big, football-shaped hanging wasp nests into the house, even in the dead of winter, is an "iffy" idea because if some of the workers are still alive, they will warm up and fly around their new home.

The BugLady