Wasps, the Keepers of the Garden

Addendum: Wasp sex is confusing and somehow I got it wrong about how females make a male wasp. I said all they have to do is fertilize the egg but it’s the other way around. For a female they fertilize the egg. For a male they don’t. I’ve made the change and will be more careful in the future. I’m no expert.

In the past year a certain insect has caught my attention and that insect would be the wasp. This is most likely because I’ve started taking pictures of bugs in my garden and there just happens to be lots of wasps to take pictures of. Some are even big and slow enough for me to actually capture in focus. I don’t have a real macro lens so the bigger the better for me. As it turns out, I also find these wasps to be fascinating. If not a bit disturbing, but then that’s nature for you.

The wasp family is in the order Hymenoptera which includes sawflies, bees and ants. Image from wikipedia.

Wasps are diverse. There are over 100,000 species world wide and 1200 in Maryland. While they have many similarities to bees, they are mostly hairless and therefore not as good at pollination as bees. Their bright colors, often yellow and black, warn of their unpalatability and are a model for Batesian mimicry by non-stinging insects such as flies.

Wasp Fly (family: Conopidae) (Physocephala burgessi) mimics the colors and shape of a wasp.

Like bees, some wasp species are eusocial such as yellow jackets and hornets but most wasps are solitary, consisting of a mother wasp who tends to her children. Solitary wasps generally don’t sting. If they do it’s in self defense and apparently not that painful.

All species of social wasps make their nests out of some kind of plant fiber. Those big wasp nests you see in trees are made by social wasps known as paper wasps who make a paper out of dead wood pulp and wasp saliva.

This wasp, I’m guessing is a grass carrying wasp, is probably making a nest in this dead stem.
This is a potter wasp. She makes her nest out of mud sometimes on the sides of buildings.

Solitary wasps have much more diverse nest building habits. Some make their nests in the ground. Others, in plant stems and some out of mud. The featured image at the top of this post is a sand wasp who builds her nest in the ground.

Despite the bigger wasps in my garden, many wasps are tiny. The smallest known wasp and the smallest known flying insect is the Kikiki huna with a body length of 158 micrometres.

This mother wasp seems to have captured some kind of prey she will take back to her nest to feed her young.
This type of wasp is what’s known as a ichneumonid wasp. She usually lays her eggs in or on a host which eventually gets eaten by her larvae.

Where wasps may lack in pollination capabilities, they excel at specialized predation. For almost every insect, there is a wasp predator. Aka a mother (if a solitary wasp) or mother or daughter (if a social wasp) with some very unique ways of feeding the young wasps. I suppose there is no way to gloss over a wasp’s feeding habits so I’ll get right to the point. Some wasps paralyze their prey before dragging it back to the nest where they will lock it in the cell for the larvae to eat. Others, known as parasitoid wasps inject eggs into or onto the prey for the larvae to eat and eventually kill. Prey consists of a preferred insect such as a caterpillars, crickets, katydids or some other arthropod such as spiders. There are wasps that even specialize on ants. The adult wasp, however, usually only eats nectar.

Scoliid wasp eating nectar from late flowering thoroughwort.

You may be wondering where the males come into play and the answer is, when the female decides she wants one. For a male, she just doesn’t fertilize the egg.

Despite their reputation, wasps truly are the keepers of the garden, as pollinators and for keeping insects and herbivores in check. They are fascinating and diverse and colorful. And all they need to do their job is some land, flora and prey.



Wasps: Victims of an Often Undeserved Reputation

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