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The persistent wasp

Updated on February 3, 2015

Mysterious muddy smudges

We (my family, that is) had an interesting encounter with a very persistent wasp at the weekend.

On Friday afternoon I discovered some mysterious muddy smudges on my daughter Caitlin’s duvet cover.My curiosity was somewhat piqued as she had not come in wearing shoes – so the smudges could not have come from that source. We do have a cat who comes to visit from time to time, but these smudges did not look like anything a cat might leave. So what was the source of the smudges?

Then on Saturday we found a wasp flying around Caitlin’s room. I encouraged it to go outside and within minutes it was back. I tried again. The wasp returned again. It seemed very determined to stay. So after getting it out again I sprayed insecticide on the window frame and burglar guards. I didn’t want to harm the wasp, just to get it to stay outside. This seemed to work, as the wasp stayed out.

Later I picked up the continental pillow that had been lying on top of the sleeping pillow on Caitlin’s bed and there found another of the mysterious muddy smudges. Putting two and two together I realized that this was the wasp trying to make a nest for herself. Got rid of the mud and thought nothing more of it.

Sunday morning came and lo and behold – the wasp came too! Again tried all we could to get the wasp out, spraying the window frame again. Some time later I found a beautifully constructed single tube of mud drying on the pillow.

Google and Wikipedia to the rescue!

Now I wanted to know more about wasps and so did the usual – Googled and Wikipediaed and found somevery interesting facts.

The wasp in question was, as far as I can tell, a Sceliphron, probably spirifex, a species of solitary wasp which builds its nest of mud, is generally not at all aggressive and feeds mainly on spiders.

Wasps belong to theorder Hymenoptera, second largest order of insects after the beetles.Estimations are that there are more than 300 000 species of Hymenoptera in the world. Hymenoptera include bees, ants and wasps. They are called holometabolous, that is, they have a complete metamorphosis during their life cycle from egg, through the larval stage, the pupal stage to the adult stage. The last stage is usually the most visible one, and certainly the persistent wasp of our story was at the adult stage, just preparing to lay her eggs.

Now an interesting thing about many wasps is that they are the original feminists – the female does not need a male to fertilise her eggs and, furthermore, can choose the sex of her offspring! Many species of wasps procreate through what is called parthenogenesis, or “virgin birth.”

The type of wasp we had to deal with was what is called a “solitary” as opposed to a “social” wasp.This wasp we had in Caitlin’s room is not at all aggressive and stings very rarely. Social wasps build nests around a queen, very similar to a bee hive which is centred on a queen.

They build their nests which are in the form of a series of mud tubes, and in each tube an egg is laid, with some spiders caught and paralysed by the wasp to provide food for the larva when it emerge from the egg.

Interestingly we humans are completely dependent on the Hymenoptera – if they were to suddenly disappear off the face of the earth, we humans would not last much longer. Indeed, I found an article about the so-called “plague” of wasps in Europe in 2006 which stated that an average wasp nest will consume between four and five metric tons of pests. To achieve a similar level of pest control, the article stated, “using pesticides would see us immersed neck deep in an environmental disaster.” Not only that but all the food we grow, both for ourselves to consume and for the other animals we consume to live on, is dependent on the pollination done by the hymenoptera, including the wasps.

So next time you see a wasp, treat it with the respect it deserves, not with fear, and with gratitude for all it does for us humans!

Tony McGregor


19 January 2009

The tube
The tube
Another view of the tube
Another view of the tube
Illustration of the life cycle of insects from the page Back Yard Nature
Illustration of the life cycle of insects from the page Back Yard Nature
A female Sceliphron
A female Sceliphron
The morphology of a wasp
The morphology of a wasp

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