Paper Wasp – Polistes dominula

Paper Wasp Polistes dominula
Bees & Wasps Index | Bees & Wasps Main | Stinging Hymenoptera

This invasive species has caused great commotion amongst birders and other naturalists.
Live adult wasps photographed in the wild at DuPage County, Illinois, USA.

Polistes with meatwad – skinned & chewed box elder bug nymph
What do paper wasp larvae eat? Box elder bug nymphs, for one thing. Adult wasps feed on flower nectar, but the also hunt for caterpillars or other small insects to feed their larvae. The wasp pictured above is processing a boxelder bug nymph; she chews the bug while absorbing its liquids, which serves two purposes: it makes the carcass lighter and easier to carry, and the liquid is regurgitated later as food for young larvae which have not yet made the transition to solid food.

This species was accidentally introduced into North America from Europe and has been spreading throughout North America. There has been a great flap among those who promote the purple martin and other bird species by building and maintaining bird houses; it has been said these wasps are more aggressive than the native variety, and greatly appreciate the environment inside such (wooden) structures.

Polistes dominula is covered with goldenrod pollen

Most paper wasps measure about 2 cm (0.75 in) long and are black, brown, or reddish in color with yellow markings. Paper wasps will defend their nest if attacked. Adults forage for nectar, their source of energy, and for caterpillars to feed the larvae. They are natural enemies of many garden insect pests.

The nests of most species are suspended from a single, central stalk, or pedicle, and have the shape of an upside-down umbrella. Some tropical species make nests that hang in a vertical sheet of cells. Plant and wood fibers are collected by the wasps, mixed with saliva, and chewed into a paper-like material that is formed into the thin cells of the nest. The nests are constructed in protected places, such as under the eaves of buildings or in dense vegetation. The nest pictured here was constructed under the iron railing of a bridge over the DuPage River West Branch. Normally a colony of several to several dozen paper wasps inhabit the nest.

The colony is founded in early spring, soon after the queens emerge from hibernation. As the colony matures, males and the next year's queens are produced. These queens mate with males and are the only members of the colony to survive through winter. In late summer or fall, the founding queen, workers (sterile females), and males all die. The newly mated queens hibernate, in piles of wood, in vegetation, or in holes. The following spring they emerge and begin the cycle anew. A similar life cycle is found in bumble bees.

Paper Wasps om paper nest
The hexagonal structure of the brood cells is apparent in this wasp's nest made of "paper" – chewed up plant tissue and saliva.

Wasps Versus Drug Smugglers
According to Discover Magazine, the antennae of common wasps are as sensitive to smell as the nose of drug-sniffing dogs used by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Scientists at the University of Georgia at Tifton have invented a gadget that takes advantage of the wasps ability to sniff out odors such as those emitted by corpses, drugs, bombs or toxins. It's called The Wasp Hound: a canister the size of an ordinary soda can, containing insects trained via classical conditioning to associate  a certain odor with food (a simple sugar syrup). When the wasps in the Wasp Hound canister detect the chemical odor they are trained for, they cluster around the source. A minicam inside detects the wasps' movements and transmits the results to a laptop computer.

The scientists point out the advantages of insect sniffers over our canine pals: The wasps are small and portable, and the training only takes 5 – 10 minutes. They don't eat much, and nobody gets attached to the darned things. They die after 48 hours, but they just insert a new batch and the device is again ready for action. They claim the wasps can be trained to recognize most chemicals.

Order Hymenoptera: Bees, Wasps, & Ants

Hymenoptera (Latin for membrane wing) is a vast assemblage of insects second only to Coleoptera (beetles) in the number of described species. Hymenoptera number some 115,000 species – of which 18,000 live in North America. Hymenopterans inhabit a wide variety of habitats, and show an incredible diversity in size, behavior, structure and color.
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