Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Nature's architecture

There are several species of wasps in the UK that look fairly similar. The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) is the one we see most. It normally nests underground, but it was also nest in buildings in roof spaces and lofts. The German Wasp (Vespula germanica) can be recognised by the three small black dots just above the mouth and by the black diamond and triangle markings on the abdominal segments. It is a fairly common species, with only V. vulgaris being more abundant. It often nests in bushes and trees. A recent arrival is the Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media), first appearing in 1980 and quickly spreading northwards. It is a large species and at first glance distinguishable from most other wasps by the greater amount of black on the abdomen. Nests are typically found in hedgerows. Two other species can be encountered in the south of England, the Tree Wasp and the Red Wasp.The Tree Wasp (Dolichovespula sylvestris) which has an elongated face, which in Common Wasp is more rounded. This is a fairly common wasp in the southern counties of the UK. The Red Wasp (Vespula rufa) is a ground-nesting species It is quite an easy species to identify, with the rufous markings on the first and second abdominal segments.

When Richard Barton, a friend from Chapel Lane, brought me this wasp's nest I didn't realise that it could have been produced by so many different species. The most likely seem to be the German or the Median Wasp. This particular nest was about the size of a coconut and was made in a hedge. As it was in a garden near children it of course cause some worries. Wasps are not the favourite insect of many people, anyone who has had the surprise of a wasp sting, when unaware of the wasp being there will understand why. The nest was fascinating. Extremely light and beautifully constructed.

The main structure is made out of a sort of paper, produced bu the wasps from wood pulp. The wasps collect wood fiber by using its mandibles to scrape it from dead trees, worn and weathered wooden fences, buildings, telephone poles, and other sources. Sometimes they collects fiber from man-made paper products such as paper bags or cardboard boxes. The insects then chew the wood and mix it with saliva. This makes the wood fiber extremely soft and moist. After a period of chewing, the wasps add the paste to the nest structure and spread it out with their mandibles and legs. After it thoroughly dries; a type of tough, durable paper is formed.

Inside the nest the wasps make combs divided into individual hexhagonal cells. The cells are used for rearing young as the Wasps don't normally store food as they bring mainly caterpillars, bugs, flies, spiders, etc. and the meat would spoil if the wasps were to store it.

There are normally pockets of air between the combs, that help maintain a comfortable temperature in the nest.

A close up of the paper shows how there are different layers that are produced from different raw material sources, giving the whole nest a beautiful pattern of striations.


Derek Faulkner said...


Absolutely fascinating and great photography. I really enjoyed that piece of natural history.

Wendy said...

I too found it very interesting, thanks, Tony - there's usually a wasps' nest in my attic every 2 years that has to be dealt with. However, what are the insects (look like wasps) that are busy burrowing their way thru a rotten log in my wood pile and throwing out an ever increasing amount of sawdust?

Tony Morris said...

Hi Wendy,
I'm not expert on Wasps and Bees, there are so many species! Many use wood to make paper and their nests and then there are carpenter bees that lay their eggs in holes bored in wood.