[ THE OUTSIDE STORY ]
What’s all the Buzz?
A quiz: The first society to make paper was:
Vespidae is the family that includes paper-making
wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. Social insects,
they’ve been accomplished papermakers for tens
of millions of years, and may have given humans
the inspiration for making their own.
A few summers back, a colony of yellow jackets
built a nest in one of my greenhouses. By
September, it was the size of a basketball. The gray
paper shimmered in the light. The workers were a
handsome yellow and black. Foragers zipped in
and out of the entrance hole in the bottom. Others
hung around outside like bouncers at a bar.
I admired, but didn’t get too close: these babies
have a well-deserved reputation for a take-no-prisoners homeland security policy.
A little research showed they were probably
Dolichovespula arenaria, the aerial yellow jacket.
And their nest was pretty big; football-size is more
typical for this particular species. It was probably
home to 500 to 1,000 workers – a lot of ouch.
The Vespidae clan includes some 5,000 species
of solitary and social wasps worldwide. In North
America, there are about 300 species. Northern
New England is home to about 10 species of
paper wasps, including half a dozen species of
yellow jacket (this includes the bald-faced hornet).
Vespid species can nest in the ground, in the
walls or under the eaves of houses, or in trees.
The stubbier yellow jackets are generally more
aggressive than the longer, spindle-shaped paper
wasps. Yellow jackets are sensitive to vibration,
which is why you’re likely to tick them off if they’re
nesting under your deck, or you’re using a string
trimmer around their nest cavity in the ground.
In the colder parts of North America, the queens
winter in cracks, crevices, and holes in the ground.
They emerge in spring, create a small paper nest,
and lay the first eggs. The paper pulp is created
using tiny bits of wood fiber collected from dead
trees, fence posts, and other plant material. They
mix it with saliva and mold it into a thin sheet
using their mandibles. Some species of wasps use
mud rather than paper. The nest is enlarged as the
colony grows. The adults catch and kill caterpillars
and insects and feed the protein to their growing
larvae. The adults prefer nectar, which is why
you’ll often find them sucking on squashed ripe
fruit or trying to drink out of your soda can.
The stings are painful and can prompt a severe
allergic reaction in some people. But while we