The Spring Habits of Wasps, Blooming Flowers and Trees

Terry Krautwurst shares his stories of the spring habits of wasps, blooming flowers and trees as the seasons change.

| February/March 2002

The author talks about the spring habits of wasps and the flowers, plants and trees as seasons change.

It's a warmer than usual, but nonetheless plodding, will-spring-never-come day in late February. "There's some sort of wasp in the window," my wife says. Sure enough, there's the hapless insect, trapped in the sun-baited space between panes in the southeast-facing window of our dining area. Lured too soon from its winter sleeping berth — a hole or crack somewhere in the old window's workings — the logy brown wasp staggers across the outer pane of glass. The future (spring!) is seemingly right there before its eyes yet not . . . quite . . . attainable.

I am reminded, uncomfortably, of a mime's feigned, flat-handed struggle within an imaginary box. "I know how, you feel" I think and stare out the window: past the wasp, past the withered grass and leafless trees, at all the barren landscape beyond. Not even the chickadees chattering and hopscotching in the shrubs at our yard's edge can break my mood.

The wasp loses its grip on the transparent barrier, falls to the sill and then resumes its futile upward climb. On a warmer day I'd rescue it. I'd lift the sash, put a wide-mouth mason jar over the insect, slip a piece of thin cardboard between the jar and the window and carry the trapped wasp outdoors to freedom. All summer I keep cardboard and a jar at hand for that purpose. When it comes to wasps, which tend to be hard-bodied and irritable, catch and release is safer than swatting.

But no, releasing this wasp out into the cold would doom it for sure, and I'm feeling too much cabin-fever kinship with her. I say "her" because, of course, this is a female. She's a paper wasp specifically a member of the genus Polistes, the sort that builds small, open-celled, umbrella-like nests beneath eaves and picnic-shelter roofs. Hornets and yellow jackets are paper wasps, too, but they build enclosed nests. They also are nastier-tempered than Polistes and create much larger colonies, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands by early fall. Polistes colonies seldom exceed a couple hundred residents and more often consist of only a few dozen.

All wasps (and many other members of hymenoptera, which includes ants and bees) go through a similar annual life cycle. In summer the colony is made up entirely of females: nonproductive workers and a single egg-laying queen. At summer's end, after the colony population reaches its peak, a change takes place: Some of the nest's larval cells produce males, and some produce fertile females. Those chosen few leave the nest and mate. The males, along with the wasps left behind, ultimately die. The females, now carrying sperm within their bodies but delaying ovulation, each find a sheltered place in which to sleep away the winter. They slumber beneath leaves or a log or loose bark, between boards in an attic or within a gap in a leaky old double-hung window.

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