Sunday, July 20, 2014

paper wasp observation nest

Foundress-queen and her smaller worker daughters.
A paper wasp foundress, probably Polistes exclamens, just started a new colony in one of my kitchen windows. I'm pleased to have this chance for easy observation of how these wasps live their lives-- kind of like those demonstration bee hives with glass panes. It does seem awful late in the season to be getting started. When I first noticed the nest it was just a couple foundresses and workers. Now it appears that they have successfully reared young, but no males are present yet. According to Bug Eric, males have black on their heads and thorax. I'll keep an eye out.

I did a little research, and sometimes late season colonies are 'satellite nests'. A queen may found multiple nests as insurance against total reproductive failure in the case of predation. Birds will knock down paper wasp colonies, and having extra nests insures that the queen doesn't lose her entire reproductive effort.

Unlike honeybees, paper wasp queens continue to forage and defend their nest even after the foundation of their colony. They don't specialize in baby-making to the exclusion of all other activities. Because queens take an active role in rearing their brood, there is high queen mortality. Perhaps as an adaptation to this, all female paper wasps are capable of reproduction. Workers eschew reproduction not because they are unable to do so, but because it is not their 'job' in the colony. If the queen should pass, the next-in-line, generally the eldest, assumes the role of queen.

Also unlike honeybees, only fertile queens overwinter. Workers have brief lifespans of only a few weeks, and males are only present part of the season. Fun fact: no male Hymenoptera sting. A stinger is a modified ovipositor, and males never had one.

These paper wasps are probably eating soft bodied insects, especially caterpillars. A couple of yards from the satellite nest a Hackberry tree is suffering an outbreak of webworm caterpillars. I've got to imagine the foundress noticed these tasty morsels when she was choosing where to start a new colony.

One last thing: I love bees, but I have a more complicated relationship with wasps. I've been stung by yellow jackets enough times to harbor a general mistrust for the family. However, all these wasps did when I clunked my camera against the glass was freeze in the alert position over their young. Pretty chill, really. Knowledge tends to conquer fear, so perhaps watching this family over the remainder of the summer will change my mind.


  1. I had an unfortunate incident with wasps when I was a child! But over the years my dread has turned to respect and even fascination. What a marvelous opportunity you've had to watch them up close. Thanks for sharing.

  2. When I was a teenager, we had an opportunity, similar to yours, to watch a paper wasp nest built between our kitchen window and the outer storm window. It was fascinating!

    I've always thought that male wasps had yellow or white faces.... It will be interesting to hear about what you observe as the summer goes on!