Sunday, July 29, 2012

Long live the Queen

Their labors, right outside one of our bedroom windows, went on for about two years but during the initial two or three months the nest never grew much larger than a golf ball-sized lump of mud, neatly and firmly stuck under the wooden lintel. 

The paper wasps kept working right through eight seasonal changes, though, their numbers increasing to several hundred, along with the size of their mud emporium which got to be slightly bigger than a basketball sliced in half.  

The empty nest as we found it this morning.
If you figure the nest was built by each wasp bringing a tiny mouthful of mud, paper bits and other debris and methodically spitting it on the existing pile, this project becomes as awesome in scale as any ancient pyramid even though it's far more ephemeral.  

We expected the wasps would abandon the nest and move on last winter; that's what we had read. But this bunch kept at it, the brown blob growing daily as wasps frenetically shuttled in, dropped their load and flit out for more. 

That is, until this morning, when I found the huge nest totally deserted--pfft! from one day to the next--except for two or three straggler wasps woozily hovering about. 

Its suddenness reminded me of huge Maya or Inca cities that went from grandeur to abandoned ruins in the course of just a few years. 

I had hoped for the wasps to leave because their nest kept us from opening a window. But this morning I was instead a bit sad to see they had so unceremoniously left us. 

The entrance, with a couple of honeycombs visible inside. 
Stew put on his beekeeper costume once more, just to be sure, climbed on the ladder and loosened the nest from its moorings on the window. There was no sign of life inside the honeycomb structure, as least from what we could see through the opening that served as entrance. 

We were scrupulous not to bother the wasps during their two-year tenancy on our window. Unless some critter is aggressive or dangerous we adhere to a live-and-let-live tact with regard to the nature around us. 

In the case of the wasps I had read they wouldn't bother people if left alone. As a thank-you for our tolerance they would hunt down mosquitos and other noxious pests, as part of a larger ecological symphony we'll never begin to understand.  

For all its size--about twelve inches long, ten wide and about eight deep--the nest weighed only one and a half pounds. It's very delicate, like some ancient papier-mach√© work of art made of layers of paper far thinner than onion skins. 

The meticulously symmetrical honeycomb layers partly visible through the entrance and on the back of the nest yield no clues, at least to me, of what went on inside all those months.   

Neither do I have any idea what caused the sudden and total abandonment of the nest. According to a couple of web sites, winter is the usual cause, but here we've been having very moderate temperatures in the low 80s during the day and down into the 60s at night. In its location under the lintel, the nest was protected from the rain too.

So it must have the death or departure of the queen that caused their hundreds of subjects to leave overnight. She didn't leave a farewell or a suicide note so the reasons for this rather operatic finale will remain a mystery also. 

Two years' worth of work won't be in vain. A friend of Stew at the apiculture club collects paper wasp nests that she converts into some sort of handicraft. 

It's amazing what people will do to pass the time when they retire. 

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Here are a couple of links regarding paper wasps. 

http://kaweahoaks.com/html/wasp_paper.html

3 comments:

  1. It's amazing what people will do to pass the time when they retire.

    Like writing about wasps and crocodiles?

    Nice story. If opera can celebrate Nixon going to China, why not the death of a wasp queen?

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  2. Our wasps are acting strange this years as well. The yellow jackets have kicked out the males two months early this year. Our summer season started 2 months early this year, maybe that has something to do with that. The paper wasps like yours built many nests on the ground this year. They build up high most years or inside bushes. I ran over a ground nest with the brush hog yesterday, it was inside a clump of old hay. Not normal at all.

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