Most of us would decline an invitation to meet the inhabitants of the nest pictured with this article. This nest of a feared insect, a species of social wasp, was discovered by my contractor, John, while he was on my roof repairing storm windows this fall. These wasps never pestered me or my family, fortunately, because the sting of the female is notoriously painful. A typical wasp, including the yellow jacket which visits picnics, is one-half to one inch long with a narrow waist, large abdomen, compound eyes, six legs, four wings and two antennae. Wasps are vegetarians eating nectar and fruit juices but they are fierce predators of other insects which they feed to their larva (young). The wasp throat is so narrow it can swallow only liquids, not pieces of insects or caterpillars.
This past weekend I attempted to collect the nest pictured here by throwing a rope over the supporting branch while on my house roof hanging onto the chimney but the branch and nest never came close enough to grab. The branch sprung back but the nest stayed intact. I had hoped to inspect the inside structure. The nest, likely that of a wasp species called a hornet is built to last only one season harboring up to a thousand female workers, a few male drones and one queen, hence the designation, a social wasp.
The life cycle of social wasps is fascinating since the queen wasp, once she mates with several males in the early fall, seeks shelter in an old log, under tree bark or in an attic to hibernate through the winter. In the spring the queen emerges from her hiding place to start building a nest, another wonder of nature. She chews weathered wood and branches, mixing it with her saliva and creating a paper which is fashioned into a group of hexagonal cells or chambers attaching the horizontal layer of cells to a tree branch. She lays eggs which in two weeks hatch into wormlike larvae. The larvae have large mouths so she can feed them pieces of insects she has captured. Through a process of mutual support the queen stimulates the larvae to release a sugary liquid which provides her nourishment so she can lay more eggs. Soon the larva spins a cocoon in the cell and through metamorphosis emerges as a female worker wasp. The new worker wasps take over the queen's nest building adding more tiers of cells under each other and finally covering the multiple tiers with an outer covering of paper so the nest is the size of a football. Hanging high in a tree, the nest with numerous chambers or rooms, can be compared to a medieval castle. The worker wasps also forage for other insects or caterpillars to feed to the developing larvae. In the late summer the queen lays fertilized eggs in large cells which become fertile queens and unfertilized eggs which develop into males or drones whose only function is to mate with new queen wasps. Once a queen has mated she leaves the colony to seek winter protection. The remaining worker wasps, larvae and cocoons die with a killing frost and the nest is abandoned forever. The common yellow jacket wasp builds a similar nest of paper but underground in an old woodchuck or chipmunk hole.
Wasps raised young in multiple tiers of honeycomb shaped layers inside the paper covering of this nest hanging over the author's house this summer.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
Historians feel man's observation of wasp nest building with wood pulp in ancient times prompted man to discovery how to make paper.
Since wasps capture insects to feed their larvae, they contribute to the balance of nature keeping insect populations in check. The wasp itself is preyed upon by the common dragonfly which catches and devours them on the wing.
While visiting a Virginia college attended by three of my daughters, I learned wasp nests make highly desirable home decorations in the south. I could not understand this tradition but now realize this paper0covered wasp nest is a marvel of architecture; it is sturdy, functional, and no two are the same, constructed on time and within budget. The nest deserves to be admired, protected and valued.