Wasps!

Last week, I received a copy of Heather Holm’s book on wasps – her latest masterwork. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I actually got the book as a thank you gift for giving a presentation, but I was planning to buy it anyway.

Wasps have an undeserved bad reputation among some people. It’s probably because when people think of wasps, they envision one of the relatively few species that aggressively defend their nests (the nerve!) when others, including humans, get too close. Dismissing all wasps because of a few aggressive ones is kind of like giving up on Mexican food because you don’t like cilantro.

Paper wasps are one of the notorious wasp species that will certainly sting you if they feel you’re threatening their nest. They’re also one of a minority of wasp species that has a eusocial structure with a queen and workers with specialized jobs. This male (males don’t sting, by the way) has milkweed pollinia all over its feet after feeding on milkweed nectar.

In reality, it’s estimated there are more than 100,000 wasp species in the world; many more, by the way, than the estimated 20,000 species of bees. As with bees, most wasp species have a solitary lifestyle, in which a single female builds a nest, lays eggs, and provides food for them by herself. Many wasps are pollinators, but they are much more than that. While parents might be nectar feeders, the babies are carnivores. As a result, most wasps hunt down invertebrates for their larvae to eat, making them incredibly important regulators of insect and spider populations. Holm explains that wasps are the evolutionary ancestors of bees. Bees just gave up carnivory and focused solely on feeding nectar and pollen to their kids.

The five-banded Thynnid Wasp is a great example of a wasp we can all get behind. Females go out at night and dig down to scarab beetle larvae (white grubs) in the soil. How do they find the grubs? I have no idea. Anyway, the wasp stings (paralyzes) the grub and lays an egg on it so her larva has plenty of food after hatching. During the day, the female feeds on flower nectar and/or sleeps. Males (like these shown) often congregate on plants overnight, but aren’t aggressive (don’t have stingers). They just hang out together after a long day of nectar feeding and female chasing.

I’ve long been fascinated by wasps, and have tried to learn what I can, but I’ve mostly had to do so by hunting down scattered bits of information. Holm’s book brings together a wealth of knowledge into one place. In fact, the first thirty pages of her book packs in so much material, I’ve already read it several times – not because it’s poorly written, but because I wanted to absorb it all. She goes through the various categories of wasps and talks about their nesting and hunting strategies, diet selection, and much more. I learned, for example, that some wasps use vibration (like a jackhammer) to excavate nest tunnels. Others carry soil and water separately and then mix them together when constructing aboveground mud nests.

I’m not sure, but I think this might be a wasp in the genus Isodontia? Maybe Isodontia mexicana, the Mexican Grass-carrying wasp, based on the description in Holm’s book.

After the terrific introductory chapters, Holm then moves into the main chapters of the books, in which she details the descriptions and lives of several hundred wasps. That’s only a small selection of North America’s wasps, of course, but it covers many of the common species most of us will see around us. The book focuses mainly on aculeate wasps (narrow waisted wasps) because, I assume, doing any more would make the book too heavy to lift. It’s a hefty book as is, but not in a way anyone could complain about.

One of the delightful discoveries I made through Holm’s book is that many wasp names are basically short stories that include both physical description and life history of the creature. Examples: Half-belted Blue-black Spider Wasp; Smoky-winged Beetle Bandit Wasp; Robust Katydid-hunting Wasp; Foggy Treehopper-hunting Sand Wasp. If you learn the name, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what it looks like and what kind of prey it feeds to its kids!

I don’t know this one, and I’m not even 100% sure it’s a wasp and not a bee. The line between the two is pretty blurry sometimes.
Someone (probably Mike Arduser) once identified this wasp as being in the genus Aphilanthops and I’m not going to argue.
This looks a lot like the Common Blue Mud Wasp (Chalybion californicum) in Holm’s book, but I remember it being bigger than that when I saw it on this yucca pod. It sure is a gorgeous color, though, isn’t it?

After supper over the weekend, I grabbed the book before the kids had left the table, and offered to randomly open it and tell them about whatever wasp species was on that page. The kids were skeptical, but by the time I finished reading about the Wood-boring Mason Wasp (Euodynerus foraminatus) and the way it brings paralyzed caterpillars to its larvae inside a tree stump, they were willing to hear about another one. Then I told them about cuckoo wasps, which wait for other wasps to leave their nest hole and then sneak in and lay their own eggs inside. They are the cowbirds of the wasp world! I could tell the kids were fascinated by the way they were slowly backing out of the room…

Come on, look at that face… Don’t you want to get to know this fascinating creature and all its kin? of course you do.

Look, I don’t really do book reviews on this blog, and I’ve turned down a number of requests to do so. I was not asked to write anything about this particular book – I just couldn’t contain my excitement about finding such a tremendous resource on a group of insects I’ve always wanted to learn more about. Buy the book or don’t – it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I can tell you, though, you won’t be disappointed if you do. And if you don’t, how will you learn about the Eastern Ant-Queen Kidnapper Wasp?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

20 thoughts on “Wasps!

  1. “I could tell the kids were fascinated by the way they were slowly backing out of the room…”
    Ah-hahahahaha! It’s me, if only I was this self-aware. I find old potter-wasp chambers when I prune our orchard plants. One year, we found an active, enclosed chamber in harvested red currants. I just had to break it open. There were 13 small, pale green caterpillers and one wasp larva. It was both very cool and creepy at the same time as I thought about the zombie caterpillars being eaten alive. I’ve never seen that kind of caterpillar anywhere but obviously they can find a lot of them.
    Secondly, I’ve observed a great golden digger wasp colony for several years. They also use that ‘jack-hammering’ action to fill in their holes. I couldn’t tell by watching but when I watched the ‘slo-mo’ video I took, you could tell she was using her head to pack the soil.
    Thirdly, and I’ll quit; We once left a bald-faced hornet nest to grow to an enormous size right in the corner of our porch (that we walked past every day) because I read that they were calmer than some wasp species and that they hunted yellow jackets and hornets. They WERE good neighbors! I can’t say we became friends, tho. Thank you posts like these.

    • Thanks Kathy – great stories! I’ve never had the opportunity to be around bald-faced hornets. I bet they’re fun to watch. I’ve never seen the jackhammer excavation personally, but it’s now a life goal for me…

      • It’s been my experience that if you even look at a bald-faced hornet cross-eyed they’d come after you! They are supposedly one of the more aggressive species. I avoid them and yellow jackets like the plague. Fortunately, I discovered that if you hang up a fake paper wasp nest (many gardening supply stores carry them), you can prevent them from building where you don’t want them – apparently they don’t like to build near others of their ilk.

  2. I love your entymology lessons, Chris! I’ve noticed increasing efforts these days to encourage folks to recognize the benefits of insects and other arthropods, but even in discussions about pollinators, rarely does one read or hear anything positive about wasps — the word itself generates fear. Thank you for bringing our attention to Heather Holmes’ new book. I appreciate your continued efforts to raise awareness of the often-ignored small critters that keep the good Earth turning.

  3. This book sounds amazing- thanks for spotlighting it in your post! It sounds like it is filled with an incredible amount of life history on wasps that I may have seen and those I don’t know exist. I also sense that this book will be a gold mine for future quizzes on the Prairie Ecologist; based on the examples given, it seems like some of these names are ready-made for “guess the name of the real wasp”.

  4. I’m not much of an expert on Wasp I.D., bugs in general as far as that goes. But we have been seeing a really neat wasp up in the top prairie planting. Its a very large all black wasp. So I did some interweb searching an what do you know, its a Giant Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus).
    If all this bug I.D. stuff is easy as the Giant Black Wasp was I’ll be an expert in no time!!.

  5. I love wasps, surprisingly, even the Eastern Ant-Queen Kidnapper Wasp!
    And I really want this book, but am kinda hoping it will come as a gift.
    If not, it will be my birthday gift to myself in a few months.
    Glad to know the kids like the book, too. :-)
    Thanks for the review.

  6. Yeah as a kid growing up in southern Arizona and in the era before TV, back in the early 50s my buddies and I loved targeting “Yellow Jackets” that made the paper nests on the palm trees along the roads there. So, the goal was to throw rocks until you knocked the nest off of the tree. Now, we also learned to pay close attention so you didn’t get distracted looking for another rock when your buddy knocked the nest off while you weren’t looking. Because as soon as you hit the nest, man they were after anyone nearby and those not paying attention got a ‘sting’! So, maybe that was a good lesson to always pay attention????
    thanks for the reminder Chris

  7. I’d spent most of my life running at top speed from wasps or anything that resembled a wasp, but then I met my first Cicada Killer. It was hanging around some shrubs near my front door, and it was huge. Eventually, I figured out that it was solitary, not at all aggressive, and primarily interested in cicadas. I was lucky enough to see one carrying a cicada back to its burrow, and I’ll be watching for their emergence this year. Ms. Holm’s book looks great, but since my book budget’s limited, I’m going to recommend it to our local library. They keep a list of suggested books and are very good about adding to their collection, so we’ll see!

  8. Ah, wasps! I’m known by family as the rescuer – as many would end up struggling for survival in our swimming pool. I would find a leaf or similar ‘lifeboat’ and rescue as many as I could. My initiation into the world of wasps was with a number of blue-winged wasps that had arrived at our property to feed on the large number of green june beetles that had colonized there. Their tell-tale figure eight flight pattern was the final identification factor. A very low-key wasp, I got comfortable moving among them in the gardens – not ever feeling threatened. I treated each wasp encounter afterwards similarly, and have not been stung. I will look for this book – thank you!

  9. Mine arrived about a month ago, and I just haven’t had time to get into it! >sigh< But I'm sure looking forward to it!

  10. I am totally going to read this book! It’s been too long since I’ve indulged in any nature or biology subject material.

  11. Thanks for your post! Just purchased this book yesterday, adding to a growing stack of “Adventure Guides” to the natural world that lives just outside our doors and windows. “Wasps” and your entomology blogs are paradigm shifters!

    We’ve been observing wasp nests on our porch for a number of years now, their comings and goings, their seasonal activities, capturing and returning to the outdoors the occasional strays that follow us indoors, re-routing fearful house guests to another door, becoming more familiar with the lives and spirits too I think, of these fascinating insects. It started a number of years ago when we watched a paper wasp nest (Polistes metricus) under construction near the kitchen window. It grew quite large over the summer, with dozens of wasps in attendance. And then a late summer windstorm tore at the fragile stem and it fell. But the wasps remained, huddling together for nearly two weeks, in the spot where the nest had been. And then one day, we watched them drop down, one by one, and fly away. By that summer’s end, we were hooked on wasps, we anticipate their return each year, and we have learned important lessons about letting these exquisitely evolved insects live – for their sakes and ours too.

  12. During the summer a few years ago in my native plant garden in Milwaukee I noticed the sudden appearance of a number of large black wasps all with a distinctive yellow dot of color on the top of their heads! I couldn’t find the wasp with that distinctive yellow dot anywhere in the books, then I called a university expert who pointed me in the right direction when I told him the wasps were feeding feverishly only on my dotted horsemint (monarda punctata). In the process of reaching for nectar deep in the base of each flower the wasps on their way we’re forced to rub the top portion of their heads up against the overhanging upper flower petal which was laden with pollen. “You want my nectar? then spread my pollen.” So a new species wasn’t discovered- the giant yellow-headed black wasp, but a distinctive way of pollination was!

  13. Hi Chris –

    Thanks so much for this post. I enjoy reading your emails. I sent this one to my kids. My daughter is bothered by the many wasps on our personal property so I thought she would appreciate it!

    And I ordered the book.

    Hope you and yours are well.

    Thanks,

    Scott

    Scott Simon
    The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas
    601 N. University Ave.
    Little Rock, AR 72205
    501-614-5082 office
    501-804-4081 mobile
    ssimon@tnc.org
    nature.org/arkansas
    For updates on conservation in Arkansas and other cool places, like us on[Facebook small logo link]
    Check out our 2020 Arkansas Annual Report here

    [cid:image002.jpg@01D721FC.65D45B50]

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