The Spring Habits of Wasps, Blooming Flowers and Trees

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PHOTO: DIGITAL VISION
The author talks about the habits of wasps in spring and the blooming flowers and trees in the changing seasons.

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.

I regard the stumbling wasp again: potential royalty. If
she survives this joke played on her by fleeting
unseasonable warmth and a homeowner too lazy to seal a
window, if she returns to her berth and emerges later into
nature’s true spring, she will make her own nest of
chewed-wood pulp, lay an egg in each cell, add the sperm
she holds and ascend to queenship. No wonder she tries so
determinedly to cross the invisible glass barrier. There’s
work to be done — babies to be made. This is an expectant
mother.

Expectant. Thinking this while peering out the window, I’m
chagrined to realize I, too, have been fooled to
frustration by the unseen, invisible, seemingly “not there”.
I look again at the landscape through eyes opened with the
help of my wasp companion, and suddenly it is not so
barren.

All around is spring itself, fresh and green and abuzz with
life merely out of sight. Those “leafless” trees are not
leafless at all. On every living branch and twig of every
shrub and tree, tucked within myriad buds blanketed by bud
scales from frigid weather, are countless tiny, fully
formed baby leaves. They’ve been there since late last
summer — all of them, spring’s entire green gush of
foliage, waiting in miniature: the dogwoods’ saw-toothed
ovals, the spiky red oaks and the many-thumbed whites, the
arrow-shaped birches and elms, the feathery walnuts and
ashes, every leaf of every deciduous species.

Spring’s signature flowers, too, ornament the unseen
landscape, disguised from above by the withered remains of
last year’s stems and leaves. Over at the moist edge of our
woods, there’s snowy-bloomed bloodroot; on the opposite
side, white-winged Dutchman’s breeches. Farther back,
there’s furtive jack-in-the-pulpit and mayapple, and along
our driveway, wild columbine’s whiskered pendants. They’re
all there, complete with stems, leaves and flowering parts:
spring’s generation snug underground in buds nourished by
the food-storage bins we call bulbs, corms, rhizomes and
tubers.

The wasp clambers to eye level and reminds me again of its
hymenopteran kin — and the host of other warm-weather
insects covertly populating the winter world. In addition
to countless queens-to-be and other insects wintering under
shelter as adults, there are the eggs, larvae and pupae of
hundreds of species, all with spring due dates. Moths such
as the luna and polyphemus spend the winter months as pupae
in leaf-wrapped cocoons; others forego the cocoon and
burrow their mummy-like pupal selves underground.
Not-quite-adult butterflies — future flying flowers — form
a hard-shelled chrysalis around their nondescript bodies
and hang out under, or on, frost-killed vegetation. Tiny
beetle eggs spend the season buried in loose leaves and
soil; in warmer weather, they’ll emerge as glowworm larvae
and then fireflies.

Then, too, are the hidden warm-blooded creatures: the mice
and voles beneath the tall matted grass along the road; the
hibernators, such as woodchucks and turtles, slumbering in
burrows near the pond down the hill, their metabolisms on
slow, pilot-light burn.

I’m standing at the window considering all this and noting
how the chickadees outside seem more cheering than a while
ago, when I remember I need to put more wood on the fire. I
glance briefly at the wasp in the window, then leave to
take care of that chore and others, too. That night, hours
later, I notice the wasp is gone. Good. At least there’s a
chance she found a way back to her bunk.

I crawl into my own bed and pull up the covers. The
weatherman is calling for a return to frigid temperatures,
maybe freezing rain or snow. No problem, I think, just
before dropping off to sleep. No problem at all.