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Reflections in Nature: Wasps show us remarkable ways of survival

PHOTO PROVIDED Chuck Bastion is shown holding a hornet nest.

During this past summer, a friend (Chuck Bastion) and I have been watching wasps enlarge their nest. The nest hung from a limb of a tree in his yard. After several frosts in our area, Bastion climbed the tree and cut the nest down. His intention is to spray the nest for preservation. Although the nest is not the largest I have ever seen, it is one of the nicest.

We are not always fond of wasps and bees, but these insects certainly show us their remarkable ways of survival and reproduction.

Our word wasp comes from the old English word waesp or wops, which means “to weave.” The wasp is named for the house it builds, such as paper wasps build paper nests, while mud wasps build mud nests. Some wasps are social insects that form communities, while solitary wasps live and raise their families alone. There are 1,000 species of solitary wasps and only 50 social species.

The solitary wasps differ from social wasps in that they have only two sexes: male and female. Now, I can hear you saying to yourself “what other sex is there?” In social wasps there is a caste system, in which there is one queen and workers, which are unfertilized females incapable of breeding.

The female, of the solitary wasps, builds a nest and provides food for her young. The solitary wasps build their nests in burrows in the ground, in trees, on stems of plants and occasionally mud nests.

The social wasps born into a community will remain in the community and help raise future broods.

The yellow jackets and hornets are more advanced than the paper wasps, which build the same type of nests without the paper walls surrounding the nest.

The life cycle of the yellow jacket and the hornet begins in the spring, with a single female that entered hibernation during the fall, after being bred by a male.

In the spring, this female, who is now classified as the queen, begins life. Her first chore is that of building a nest. The queen builds a few cells, which are attached to the branch of a tree, and lays several eggs that she surrounds with an envelope of paper.

After the eggs hatch, the queen begins feeding the larva. In about 10 days, the larva will hatch into adult female workers. From this point on, these unfertilized females (known as workers) will do the entire food gathering, nest building and brood tending. The queen’s only job is to lay eggs.

Throughout the summer, she will be laying eggs that hatch only into female workers. However in the fall, the queen will lay eggs that will hatch into males and fertile females. After leaving the nest, the males will mate with the fertile females that go into hibernation. In the spring, the process begins anew.

After the large paper nests are abandoned, the hornets eventually die. These paper nests can be collected during the winter months. It is best to wait until the temperature drops well below freezing for several days, though

These nests are well insulated, mostly to provide relief from the summer’s heat. The hornets regulate the temperature inside the paper nest by using their wings to create an air flow. The hornets also carry water into the nest to help cool things down on a hot summer’s day.

The insulative qualities of the nest also keep out the winters cold. Due to this a host of insects can be found living in the nests during the winter months. Spiders find these nests a good place to spend the winter. Therefore, some of our songbirds will tear the nests apart to get an easy spider meal. These nests are also raided by other animals in the fall when looking for the grubs (larvae) left there by the wasps when the temperature dropped.

Cut the branch with the hornet’s nest after the second hard frost when most, if not all, of the hornets have died or left the nest. Place the nest in an outdoor area protected from the weather for at least two weeks.

This is to avoid the odor of decomposing hornets and to insure that any remaining hornets have left or died.

If the nest is placed in a dry location where it will not be bumped or disturbed, the nest will last for years. Although the nest does not need to be sealed or treated, it is a good idea to spray the nest with a clear polyurethane seal if displayed in an area where handled.

All bees are not created equal. Bees, wasps and hornets can appear the same and belong to the same order of insects known as Hymenoptera, but they are different insects.

How can you tell the difference between a bee, a wasp and a hornet?

Bees and wasps took separate evolutionary paths over 100 years ago. Bees are vegetarians and collect pollen to feed their young, while wasps and hornets are carnivores and feed on other insects. What they have in common is that only females can sting.

All hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets. In the United States, we have no native hornets. Our main hornet is the European hornet, which was introduced into New York in 1840. This hornet appears as a large yellow jacket, which is approximately three quarters to one and a half inches long and nests in the ground or in hollow trees.

Another hornet we commonly encounter is the, bald-faced hornet, a type of paper wasp closely related to the yellow jacket. These hornets are black, with white markings on their faces and abdomens.

Their huge basketball-sized nests are gray and can be seen hanging high in a tree.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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