Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

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We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.

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10 Comments

  1. What a beautiful nest! I have only ever had to deal with yellow jackets and mud wasps. Yours are rather charming. Once again, thanks for the information.

  2. You make them sound lovely. We women should learn not to mate with guys who leave the toilet seat up…Drakkar Noir, so funny. If they are so tame, why do I get stung when I am standing still and one seems to dive bomb me from afar?

    I suppose I am one of those who see flying wasps and suppose they are agitated by me. Wasps seem to like building a next on my grill and under the cover. Those scare me.

  3. Wasps have always been interesting to me and now even more so! This year they seemed to like building on vertical surfaces more than usual. And it’s fascinating the different life span of different nests. Some are still going strong and some are empty already.The only stings this year happened when there was a wasp in my outside shower towel. Apparently wasps don’t like to be rubbed vigorously on your head!

  4. Great article. I have a “no kill” bee removal business and receive a number of calls every year from uninformed homeowners who want me to kill and remove paper wasps and their nests. Your article sums up why I won’t do it.

  5. I have lived with wasps in my porch for many summers. We just don’t bother each other. The only trouble I had was with the post office when they made a home in my postbox one summer. I received an ‘official’ letter requesting I remove them. My response that, armed with kitchen tongs and due respect, the postman was perfectly safe fell on deaf ears! I can’t help but feel our local postman is not macho ‘Pony Express’ material!

  6. That’s an awesome nest! Good of you for keeping it! We have a colony of bees under our roof but we can’t see the nest, it’s hidden. Thanks for sharing :)

  7. I have one about that size on the misting system I have around my outdoor kitchen. They built it on a spray nozzle so I haven’t been able to use the mister all summer. I don’t like to bother them. I found out about 4 years ago they are natural predators of the caterpillars that eat my cabbage and tomatoes. I haven’t had a problem in 3 years that I let the wasps build wherever they want. No sting either.

  8. Love your blog, will probably spend the next few hours on it! In regards to paper wasps, a few years back, they made a nest a foot or two from my patio door unbeknownst to me. When I so much as took a step out the door I got stung 6 times and thankfully was able to push my 2 small children who were trailing behind me back into the house before they got stung. 2 of the wasps actually followed me into the house. Anyway, in the future I will definitely try to keep a better look out

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