Monday, April 29, 2013

Adirondack Wildlife: Living With Wasps

Bee Hive CollectiveAfter the ground thaws and the soil finally begins to warm, the multitude of invertebrates that passed the winter burrowed deep within the thermally protective bed of fallen leaves, rotting bark and decomposing wood emerges from their long period of dormancy. Among the many flying bugs that are currently working their way to the surface and returning to a life above ground are the wasps. After exiting their subterranean winter retreat, these often feared stinging insects explore the immediate surroundings in an effort to locate a suitable spot in which to establish a colony for the approaching growing season.

In early autumn, numerous females with a functional reproductive system are produced in each colony. Shortly after transitioning into adults, these females abandon their nest, along with the drones or males, never to return to the colony. The receptive females quickly breed and acquire enough sperm during a single mating encounter to last for the remainder of their life. Within a few days after mating, the males die, but the fertilized females often prowl the area for food before retiring for the winter.

The intake of food in autumn is needed to develop fatty substances partly used to maintain life in winter, but mainly to fuel their activities in spring before food becomes available. The intake of certain items in autumn also helps promote the formation of an altered internal chemistry that reduces the chance of ice crystals developing within their cells should the frost line extend below their winter resting site.

Most species of wasps are attracted to woodland edges and forest clearings, as open and semi-open settings typically contain the greatest concentration of nectar producing plants. Adult wasps feed on a combination of plant fluids like sap from trees and nectar from flowers; however, these insects also incorporate significant amounts of animal matter into their diet. Bugs that range in size from aphids and midges to crickets and grasshoppers are routinely preyed on by wasps to satisfy their demand for nourishment, as well as that of their larvae. The developing larvae, housed in the papery, hexagonal cells in the nest are primarily provided invertebrate matter for consumption, yet will also ingest small pieces of meat taken from a nearby dead animal carcass.

While bees have a body covering of fuzz to assist in the collection of pollen grains, the smooth outer exoskeleton of a wasp is better suited for visiting places where bacterial contamination could be an issue.

Throughout the latter part of spring and for most of summer, all of the individuals that emerge as adults in a colony are infertile females. These are the workers, and they quickly engage in performing the chores needed to sustain the colony, except for laying eggs. Once the first group of workers emerges from their pupa stage, the queen does little else other than lay more eggs in the cells of the expanding colony.

Killing a wasp during a summer picnic has virtually no impact on the daily operations of the colony, as most nests contain at least several dozen to well over a hundred workers to continue the existence of that colony. It is at this time of year when killing a wasp has a significant impact on the population of these bugs in an area. All of the individuals encountered from late April through mid May are queens that are the sole occupant of a newly established nest. In some instances, a wasp seen flying under the boards of a deck, behind a loose shutter, or into the space around an overhang or eave may only be exploring possible nesting sites and has yet to start her colony.

Most naturalists believe wasps play an important role in maintaining a balance in the population of numerous bugs and therefore should never be destroyed. Many wasps are relatively docile and only sting if their colony is directly threatened. Others, like the bald-faced hornet, (which is actually a wasp and closely related to the yellow-jacket) are quite aggressive and will attack if looked at the wrong way. (A mild exaggeration)

Around my house, I tend to allow wasps to live in peace, as they never bother me.

Illustration by the Beehive Design Collective. (Hat Tip, On The Commons)

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

4 Responses

  1. Ray says:

    There’s bees, wasps and hornets according to my classification system. Bees, including honey bees and bumble bees, just go about their business and won’t sting unless really provoked. Wasps do too. I find them mostly harmless and like to have them around because they eat caterpillars that would otherwise would be eating my garden plants.

    Then there’s hornets, including bald face hornets that live in paper nests and yellow jackets. They are just plain nasty. As a bee keeper, it upsets me that people call yellow jackets “bees”.

  2. Bob Whitaker says:

    We, too, are living with wasps. We own a log home outside Warrensburg, and , especially on the warm sunny days, we have to battle the little buggers just to get out onto our deck. They seem to be picking at the log siding. When the sun hits the west side of our house and deck, out come the wasps — dozens of them — which makes enjoying our deck difficult. We have treated the wood on the logs and the railings, to no avail. Still they come. There are no nests around that we can see. Any ideas about how to deal with them?
    Bob Whitaker, Warrensburg

    • Tom Kalinowski Tom Kalinowski says:

      Hi Bob: Wasps, especially at this time year, are often attracted to the warmth radiated by dark colored logs that are in the sunlight. While wasps do chew on small pieces of wood for the raw material in constructing their papery nest, they typically go after partially rotted wood on the ground, and not on wood on the side of a house. If you were to watch one, and see it disappear into a hole in the siding, or a small crack between the logs or decking, chances are that there is a spot large enough inside for its nest. Good Luck dealing with these insects, as their presence can be unsettling, especially when they are in large numbers.

  3. Andre says:

    As a child we used to have a wasp nest in our yard (in a hole in a concrete wall)… they never bothered us… until I decided to see how funny it would be to spray the hole with a water hose… needless to say I learned quickly that one wasp can sting more than once. One came out and chased me – stung me on the forehead – hovered in front of me – then stung me again. I learned my lesson as the sting was also more hurtful than a bee. After that I learned to leave them alone.

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