paper wasps

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

There are several species of paper wasps that can be found in Southwest Florida. These are Polistes major, and they commonly build nests up to the size of an adult man’s hand.

It’s not hard to find a wide variety of opinions on almost any subject. We are a people united by the fact that almost everyone disagrees about everything (heck, somebody out there just disagreed with me saying that). However, there are a very few things that almost everyone can get behind. One of those is that we don’t like wasps.

The reason is pretty basic: Wasps sting, and the sting hurts. Worse, they sometimes sting for no apparent reason — such as you opening your garage door, or just getting out of your car.

I’ve been stung a few times. The first time was in a tire swing at my aunt’s house. I had just gotten a push from my cousin when something very hot hit me very hard on the knee. I looked and saw an enormous red-and-black wasp about the size of a vulture, grinning evilly at me as she repeatedly plunged a foot-long stinger dripping with venom into my leg. My aunt looked the welt, which was at least the size of Hulk Hogan’s fist, then told me to quit whining and gave me an ice cube to put on it.

Why did she sting me? Because she had built a nest in that tire swing. Location is everything in real estate, and a shaded dry spot on the edge of the woods is perfect. Lucky me that she was just getting started and still in the founding stage.

A paper wasp nest is a colony that’s started by one female, the foundress or queen. After mating with a drone, she sets out to find the ideal place to build a little town. In the wild, they like the underside of large leaves, such as those found on sabal palms. But human structures create all sorts of better opportunities: Open garages, sheds, gazebos, eaves, etc.

The queen builds her nest from wood fibers and saliva — the paper that gives these wasps their name. She starts out small, with just a few six-sided brood cells. Into each cell she lays an egg, which hatches into a grublike larva. The larvae are always hungry, and she collects caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects to feed them. Raising kids is a lot of work, and she will need help to feed a lot of mouths. That’s what the first generation is for — they will be her nursery workers.

All of these young worker wasps, which take about 9 weeks to grow and metamorphose into adults, will be female. Since there are no males around at this time anyway, they will stay with their mother and help her with her future progeny. With her first batch of kids raised and doing her work for her, the queen can now settle into royal life, which mainly consists of laying eggs in the new brood cells constructed by her daughter-servants.

Throughout the summer, the nest grows. Each sister does her part for the good of the colony. Some of the workers are killed in the line of duty, mostly in defense as they chase potential predators (that’s you and me) away with fierce stings. No matter; they are easily replaced. But if the queen should die, what happens next depends on what kind of wasps we’re dealing with.

In paper wasps adapted for a colder climate, which includes local species, there are no males until fall. In these types, the colony will fail, as there can be no more babies. In some tropical paper wasps, males can occur at any time. The queen’s death will quickly lead to a rush for power, since she is no longer keeping them in check, and the winner will produce a powerful pheromone that draws a drone to her. They will mate and the colony can continue.

As late summer edges into autumn, reproductive females begin to emerge from their brood cells. These are next year’s queens, but for now they act like their worker sisters. It’s not until the males show up that things take a drastic turn.

Even in the wasp world, you’re not supposed to marry your brother. To avoid that, the emergence of males triggers all the reproductive females to leave home and go out to find some hopefully unrelated mates. The males do the same.

But now the colony has a problem. For months it has been reliant on the labor of young and energetic females to do the hard work of making brood cells and feeding larvae. This latest generation just packed up and left, leaving only older sisters and their aging mother. Worse, there’s now more infighting, and the few eggs that are laid aren’t properly cared for and die.

By the time winter arrives, the colony is dead — just an empty paper husk. The queen and all her workers are gone, some having killed one another and others dying of old age. The male wasps are dead too, having mated and then died because they’re terrible at being wasps and are not sufficiently effective hunters to feed themselves.

The future now rests with the mated queens, which were born with extra fat reserves and a natural antifreeze that will allow them to survive the winter. When spring comes, each will go out and try to find a place to build herself a castle.

Now, I don’t know if any of this is going to make you hate wasps any less. If not, at least you learned something today, and that makes it a good day as far as I’m concerned.

Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.

Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@
WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.

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