Wasp Watching

Female paper wasp near her nest

You’re filming what?

A wasp nest, I repeated. The one over the sliding glass door.

We went outside for a look. Bert’s look said, you’re nuts.

I didn’t notice the nest until early August, when a wasp walking up the glass caught my eye. I grabbed a ladder and was mesmerized.

Adult wasps tending larvae in a nest
Adults tending larvae.

Here’s a closer look.

Paper wasp larvae in various stages of development
Eggs, larvae, and inside the capped cells, pupae.

In the nest’s newest, outer cells, we see eggs. Moving toward the center, larvae are increasingly mature. The largest, lightest-colored ones will soon cover their cells and begin pupating. Gray caps cover older pupae nearing adulthood. The bright, white cap is newer.

Larvae spin their ceilings using silk made in mouth glands. Here’s a fast-forward clip of that work. In real time, the cap took 45 minutes to complete.

The nest was interesting, but I was most fascinated by the characters living there.  I never identified the nest’s foundress, commonly called the queen.  All the females look alike, a stunning combination of black and mahogany, which you can see in the photo at the top of this post.

The males, on the other hand, look like jesters.

The larvae look like grubs. Close-up view of paper wasp larvae

Somehow, those little faces just don’t make me coo, like when I see baby birds begging in a nest. Wasp larvae do agitate for food… slowly. Here’s a clip played at 40 times actual speed.
Did you notice the wasp blowing a bubble? Or is she making a droplet of liquid? Wasps sometimes release water bubbles as they suck moisture from a rain-soaked nest. But this nest was sheltered under an eave. So there must be another explanation for that bubble.

Moving from larva to larva, the adult could be feeding the kids. Or… the kids could be feeding her.

Paper wasp larvae make copious amounts of saliva. Up to fifty times more nutritious than nectar, it’s a key part of the adult’s diet. Adults eat mostly nectar, which they also give to the larvae. So, it’s hard to say who is feeding whom in the video.

Adults eat only liquids, but they feed the larvae both liquids and solids. Caterpillars provide both. Adults chew the prey into ground meat before feeding. Chewing releases the caterpillar’s hemolymph, a blood-like fluid the adult both eats and shares.

Here’s a worker prepping a meaty meal.

Paper wasp worker chewing a caterpillar chunk.
Adults divvy-up large caterpillar chunks for chewing and feeding. This gob is a small, shared portion.

Here you’ll see a couple of wasps chewing and feeding. My favorite part is at the end. Look carefully and you’ll see what inspired the clip’s title.

Did you say aww… watching those little mouths get fed?

Okay, so you didn’t. But I hope you can see I’m building a case for why wasps aren’t as sinister as their reputation suggests. I filmed some 80 hours of nest activity. I didn’t disturb them, but sometimes I was just inches away. I never felt threatened. Nor was I stung.

That said, I’ll be writing more about the nest, the queen, and her subjects. So, stay tuned. Some of what I saw made me suspect palace intrigue.

Resources and a Kids’ Book Recommendation

A great new book for teens and grownups: Wasps, The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, by Eric R. Eaton. It’s a deep dive into wasp biology and behavior. But the writing is approachable, supported by fabulous photos that put the book within easy reach of non-entomologists.

A University of Wisconsin web page is older, but one of the best concise paper wasp overviews I found. It has great photos.

A recent journal article discusses how and why paper wasps live and work in cooperative groups: Origin of an evolutionary novelty: the worker phenotype of eusocial wasps, by J. H. Hunt. (Insectes Sociaux, October 5, 2021)

For young kids: A Wasp Builds a Nest: See Inside a Paper Wasp’s Nest and Watch it Grow, by Kate Scarborough and Martin Camm. What a find! It’s a picture book with ‘step-cut’ pages. They grow in size as the reader follows a nest’s construction and the activity within. The wasps featured aren’t the same as my neighbor wasps, but their life cycles are similar, and I learned a few facts that hadn’t surfaced in my research. Highly recommend!

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

6 thoughts on “Wasp Watching”

  1. Carol, these photos are fantastic! Did you wear any type of protective gear when you were up close and personal with this group?

    1. No, I didn’t. For the really close shots and videos, I was on a ladder holding my iPhone a few inches from the nest, so at arm’s length. The wasps didn’t seem to pay attention. In some of the video, you can see a wasp looking as though straight at the camera, so they must have noticed that shiny object. I never stayed in that position for more than a minute. Most of the time, I shot the video with a camera on a tripod, using a zoom lens. I saw no agitation on the nest. Or maybe I misinterpreted and was just lucky?

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