Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Wad of Paper Wasps

This wad of paper wasps was photographed on the outside of our camp house. What's going on here? What you're seeing is what is known in entomological parlance as a "mating aggregation"- a mixture of males and females in the process of mating. The evolution of a paper wasp colony is quite interesting. The cycle will begin in the spring when one of the mated females in this aggregation creeps from her hibernation site and goes in search of a spot to build her nest. This could be on the branch of a shrub or tree, the eave of a building or even inside a styrofoam valve cover.

Once a proper site is found she forms a stem or "pedicel" out of oral secretions that will be the support from which to build the nest. She will then go about gathering weathered wood from sources such as old snags, telephone poles, or maybe even that aged two by four on your front porch. She then takes this collected wood fiber, mixes it with saliva and forms a paper mache' type substance for the nest. Once complete she then lays one egg in each cell which then develops and emerges in early summer.

This, her first offspring, will consist of all neuter or "sterile" females (aka workers) whose job will be to take over nest building, nest defense, and the care of the next brood, while she becomes queen with the sole responsibility of laying eggs. During late summer or early fall the next brood that develops will consist of both males and sterile females. The males which by the way are stinger-less (only females have stingers) will be responsible for mating with the sterile females in aggregations as mentioned above. Once this is done and winter approaches the males, workers and queen die whereas the mated females huddle up in secluded spots to hibernate. When spring arrives they disperse and the entire cycle begins again.

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