The Castle Abandoned, the Workers Dead, the Queen in Hiding

by Barbara Walvoord

Walking Lathrop land a few days ago, Sharon and I found this paper wasps’ nest hanging from a tree.

It looks like a tragedy from the tales of King Arthur.  This was once an elegant castle, with many chambers, many workers, and a pampered queen who was waited on foot and foot, never needing to  work–just lay eggs and bully all the other wasps so they know who’s boss. 

Now, in this winter photo, the nest is abandoned, full of holes, its walls shredding in the wind.  Its inhabitants are dead, including all the males and all infertile females.  The only survivors are some pregnant females, hiding out in the bark of a tree somewhere, trying to survive the cold. 

But the real story behind this wasps’ nest is a story of survival, regeneration, and nature’s rhythms.  If a mated female survives the winter (and many don’t), she will emerge in spring homeless. She doesn’t return to her abandoned castle, but starts a new home.  She chews wood and mud to build a tiny house with a few chambers, where she lays her eggs. When the larvae hatch,  she feeds and cares for them until they get old enough to shop, clean, do the dishes, bring her everything she needs, and build more chambers on the castle–all without having a sex life. Toward the end of summer, however, the colony starts producing fertile females and males, who then mate.  The guys then die, along with the unmated females, leaving only mated females, who leave the nest to hibernate,  and the cycle begins again.

Wasps hunt caterpillars, many of which are injurious to crops. They play a role in pollination.  And despite their stingers, wasps are eaten by many birds, mammals, and reptiles, and even other insects such as praying mantises.  Wasps also are parasitic hosts for a number of insects.

Wasps will defend their nest if you attack it, but away from home, they are “relatively nonaggressive,” says a Missouri government site. (https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/paper-wasps).  So here at Lathrop, nobody tore down this wasps’ nest or drenched it with pesticide.  We just let it be, part of the natural cycle that supports all creatures who call Lathrop their home.

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