A Studied Dismantling of a Yellow Jacket Nest
Photography & Story: LINDA PARK
Expert Notes: NOAH WILSON-RICH PH.D
The stump was a “decorator garden item” rescued from the side of the road a few years ago. I had moved it to the side of my house after using it to display a fairy garden. I knew nothing of the yellow jacket nest before I hit the stump while mowing the lawn. Within seconds, the yellow jackets had stung me three times on the face. When my husband responded to my screaming, he was stung in five places, right through his long pants.
Thankfully, I was wearing a bee suit, but without the bee hat, things might have been much worse. We disbanded the nest with multiple treatments of pesticide, but weeks later my daughter discovered that there was still movement in the structure. Fascinated (I am a nature photographer after all) I cautiously crept in for a closer, photographic look.
Resident insect expert Noah Wilson-Rich Ph.D, Chief Scientific Officer of The Best Bees Company, a beekeeping service that delivers, installs and manages beehives for residential and commercial properties nationwide and author of “The Bee: A Natural History,” gives us an in-depth tour of Linda’s nest.
Noah: This is an eastern yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons) nest. The structure is made from masticated (chewed) wood pulp, ground with saliva into a malleable paper. The hexagonal architecture in the comb resembles that of the hymenopterans (wasps, bees, and ants) cousins, such as the wax in honeybee nests. Unlike bees, these wasps are carnivorous, at least for part of their life cycle, and they will eat pests such as aphids, flies, and even dead and decaying carrion. Like bees, females do all the work, from nest construction to rearing brood (babies). Note the developing brood here, from small larvae growing larger, until undergoing metamorphosis during their pupal stage within bulbous capsules, after which they finally emerge as an adult, like the one being born in the top right.
Noah: Like most wasp nests, yellow jackets begin new nests in the springtime, building them in size and complexity throughout the summer. Come late fall, the populations boom and then crash, exploding with mating assemblages followed by only a few, mated females overwintering off-site, in the attics of houses or in stone wall crevices. These become the new foundresses the following spring. Note the connected stalks between layers of infrastructure, providing remarkable stability in this natural architecture.
Noah: Yellow jackets are a type of wasp. Adult yellow jackets are pollinators, feeding on nectar from plants while also transferring pollen between flowers. However, the adults also hunt insect larvae, often utilizing their venom with repeated stings. These adult females (remember, males do basically nothing other than mate) masticate (chew) their prey to pre-digest them before feeding this protein-rich food to developing larvae. Wasps need to be aggressive by nature in order to feed their brood; bees are not aggressive by nature because they are all vegan. The queen lays eggs, while the workers rear up the brood (larvae).
Noah: Nest architecture is complex for yellow jackets. Each nest begins underground, with one foundress (‘queen’) collecting wooden material from plants, masticating it with her chewing mouthparts, and mixing it with sticky saliva to form a paper stalk structure. She continues building a few compartments off the stalk, within which she lays one egg, which looks similar to a grain of rice. The offspring are also female, and they become the queen’s workers, taking over nest construction, building hundreds more cells, with layers upon layers of sheeted, hexagonal infrastructure.
Noah: Social insects, including these wasps, are remarkable in their ability to design and build somewhat advanced architecture. This wasp nest is created entirely from wooden pulp that wasps gnaw from trees and other plants, masticate with their chewing mouthparts, and combine with antimicrobial saliva as both a preservative and a form of preventative medicine for the nesting family. This wasp nest is enclosed in a paper envelope, while nests of other wasps such as paper wasps (Polistes spp.) have an open nest architecture with the paper comb visible and exposed to the elements.
Try This Fun Project For Kids!
A fun experiment for science students is to collect a wasp nest from the field, install it into a meshed enclosure with sugar water and caterpillars for food, and colored construction paper. Within a few days to weeks, the wasps will construct the most amazing tie-dye paper nest! Supervision recommended, of course. – Noah