Paper Wasps and Facial Markings

Every spring and summer, I’ve given the wasps that build their little paper nests around the house very wide berth. My father had a violent run in with a yellow jacket while on a ladder, and I couldn’t differentiate between my yellow and black hovering beasties and the ones he described. Incidentally, my father does a hilarious “something is stinging me” dance to which I have been an audience several times. He’s got moves.

When I started working in the entomology department, I took a keen interest in my wasps and did a little research. It turns out they are paper wasps, Polistes dominulus, and they are a more relaxed social wasp than the dreaded yellow jacket. They tolerate human proximity of about 8 inches with interest but no apparent alarm. This was driven home one day when I opened the passenger door of the car we use for ferrying dogs around and right below the hinge was a perfect little nest with a perfect little queen. Sometimes she was there when we pulled out of the drive, so presumably she is well traveled. She’s never wandered into the passenger compartment or been concerned by the door slamming or dogs nearby.

The paper wasp can be somewhat easily differentiated from yellow jackets by their orange antennae; they also fly with their legs hanging down and out, but there are other wasps who do this as well.

In the course of finding out more about them, I came across a study done by Elizabeth Tibbetts and James Dale of the University of Michigan. They’ve looked at facial markings and their role in individual recognition in a colony. After reading one of Tibbetts’ articles, I went out and observed the nest that hangs from the window ledge right above a shrub rose. That time and every time thereafter, the wasps that were at the outside of the nest and apparently standing guard were those with the heaviest facial markings.

With the judicious use of a long bamboo stake, I discovered they are also the ones most prepared to give chase if threatened. They are less shy than the wasps with the solid yellow faces who usually fly off when you touch the flower they are in or brush against foliage they are on. The wasps with the black markings on their face turn to face you when disturbed and notably, they do not back down. I haven’t tested their tolerance much, but it’s interesting to see how the markings so seem to rather obviously correlate with certain behaviors and roles in the colony.

Now that I’ve identified and made peace with them, I’m sorry that they’ll be gone soon as temperatures drop and the populations of the insects they eat drop steadily.

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