Wasp Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

An introduction to the wasp, learn more wasp facts including the history of the wasp, food sources, habits and habitats of wasps.


| July/August 1987



Wasp nest

Friendly or fierce? Bad or beneficial? When it comes to these summertime residents, both fear and beauty are in the eye of the beholder.


PHOTO: FOTOLIA/BJONESPHOTOGRAPHY

An introduction to the wasp, learn more wasp facts including the history of the wasp, food sources, habits and habitats of wasps. 

Wasp Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

My earliest memories include the time my big brother pushed me out of the hayloft onto a cement floor, the summer morning I toddled off a pier and nearly drowned, and The Day The Wasp Stung Me. I can still recall my terror—overwhelming as only a small child's can be—when the wasp landed on the inside of my shirt collar. Maybe three years old at the most, I took off running pell-mell across the barnyard toward our house, screaming, flailing at the insect. Naturally it stung me. I swatted some more, and it stung me again. By the time my father reached me and brushed the wasp away, my neck and shoulder were dotted with a half-dozen painful red swellings. Luckily, I've never been sensitive to wasp venom, and after a few days of soreness and itching the bites faded away.

Not so the memory. Just as the hayloft incident taught me to think twice before turning my back on my big brother, and falling off the pier gave me a lesson in the difference between bath water and deep water, the wasp stings left a lasting impression. It was a good thing, too, because when you're a boy growing up on a dairy farm, keeping your distance from wasps and hornets is almost as essential as keeping your feet out of cow pies. But I was more than just wary of wasps. I spent most of my young life in compulsive fear of them—and of nearly any insect that looked or even sounded like a wasp. I was convinced that their sole purpose was to attack and sting people (me in particular).

It was only years later, when my interests in nature and the outdoors forced me to come to grips with my fear, that I learned otherwise. Wasps are among the most maligned of all living creatures. They play extraordinary, fascinating roles in nature. As a group, they're the single most effective natural control of earth's agricultural and household insect pests. And though it's true that more people die each year from wasp and bee stings than from the bites of all other venomous creatures, it's also true that wasps and bees are far more mild-mannered than commonly believed, and seldom sting without cause.

For that matter, of the 2,500 or so species of wasps known to inhabit North America, only about 50 can sting at all. What we call a stinger is actually a modified ovipositor, the hollow tube through which female insects deposit eggs. Most wasps use the instrument for that purpose alone. Some species employ the tube to bore holes into tree bark or other vegetable matter in which to lay eggs. Others, such as trichogrammas, the gardeners' allies against cabbage loopers and corn borers, inject eggs into the bodies or larvae of other insects. Only a relative handful of wasps are also capable of injecting venom through their ovipositors, and thus a painful sting. But even of these, virtually all are mild-mannered loners, solitary wasps that ordinarily keep their distance from man and use their venom-loaded hypodermics only to stun spiders, caterpillars or other insects with which to provision their nests. Except when mating, they live their lives alone.

Mud Daubers

Probably the most familiar of solitary wasps are the mud daubers, which (OK, it's obvious) build their homes with mud. Chances are you've seen the lumpy, dried-mud nests of the black-and-yellow mud dauber (scientifically and appropriately named (Sceliphron caementarium) or the tidier, parallel-tube architecture of the organ pipe wasp (Trypoxylon politum). Both species gather mud from the banks of puddles and pools by rolling the clay into pea-size pellets and flying it, one pellet at a time, to a suitable homesite—usually a house or barn wall, a rafter or the eave of a roof. There, spreading mud in overlapping semicircles and buzzing heartily as she works (only females build nests), the wasp plasters together a hollow, tubular cell. As soon as she completes a cell she flies off in search of a spider, paralyzes it with a sting (wasps never use their stingers to kill prey except in self-defense), then grasps it between her jaws and forelegs and flies home. The mud dauber then shoves the stunned insect (or sometimes several of them) into the cell, lays a single egg in the compartment, closes it off and proceeds to build and stock other cells beside or on top of the first. Most dauber nests contain from six to 20 cells, although much larger nests have been recorded.

fern cooper
7/29/2012 11:04:27 AM

I have to ditto what another reader said about the incredibly bad idea of pouring oil or gas on the nest. If you want to contaminate the groundwater, and your well if you have one, for years to come, do this. Really surprised to read this sort of thing repeated in Mother Earth News. It sounds like the author researched the story by reading other things online and simply repeated what was read without actually thinking about it. I can see how a freelancer who may or may not have a nature/environmental background could make this mistake, but where the editor to catchi this???? I just discovered a hornet nest hanging from a low hanging branch on a large viburnum next to my driveway and am contemplating trying the Murphy's soap, although I'm wondering if it wouldn't clog whatever spray you choose to use. I may also try to give the hive wide berth, put something in that part of the driveway to prevent visitors from going near there, and wait tili a hard frost.


holly_11
5/13/2009 9:11:30 AM

Wasps!! Here in Harmony Maine they are horrific. They take over out outside near the deck area. Our siding is rustic and they just love this..making next in cracks and crannies, they are just awful. How do we get rid of them? We don't...we use the other door...there are just too many and our home siding does not allow us to seal it up. Sad huh?


gardener_1
1/20/2009 10:05:23 AM

This is a great article, EXCEPT for the suggestion of pouring fuel oil down a ground-nesting wasp entrance. Fuel oil will contaminate your soil and any water into which it may flow! Oil, gasoline, and other petroleum-based products are not insecticides! If you must obliterage a ground nest of wasps, you can pour boiling water into the hole. I've used Murhpy's oil soap to get rid of paper wasps. At dusk, spray them when they're on the nest. The soap renders their wings too heavy for flight, and they drop to the ground, where you can safely step on them. Doing this several evenings in a row has effectively gotten rid of paper wasps nests for me. I have also just knocked the nests down (again, at dusk) with a broomstick and then run for it! Come back when it's full dark, step on the nest or just toss it in the woods.






dairy goat

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