The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Out and About In The Mountains - Paper Wasps

By Fran Stoddard © 1984

Issue: November, 1984

out and about in the mountainsHow do paper wasps make the "paper" for their nests? Illustration by Susan M. Thigpen.Q: How do paper wasps make the "paper" for their nests?

A: There are several kinds of wasps and hornets in the Blue Ridge Mountains that make their nests from paper. The process for all of them is about the same.

The paper is made much as paper manufacturers make theirs; from wood pulp, water, and chemicals.

Paper wasps seek out rotten wood or weathered wood such as that found on old buildings. They have very strong mandibles (jaws) with which they chew off some of the wood. This is macerated in their mouth parts, mixed with saliva and applied to the nest as a moist sheet of paper.

Some make their nests of a low grade soft paper, while others have a very strong parchment, some as stiff as cardboard.

Two common paper nests you may see in the mountains are the ones of paper wasps (Polisites) various species, which have open six-sided paper cells built layer by layer and hanging on a stem from a ceiling. Often seen on porches.

The other is larger and closed-in, most often in trees. This nest belongs to the Bald-faced or White-faced hornet and may contain 10,000 hornets. It is best they not be disturbed. The nest is abandoned in the winter and is seldom reused the following year by hornets.

In the spring several female paper wasps work together to build an uncovered nest of wood pulp and saliva. These are the females that were bred last fall or late summer and have been hibernating through the colder months. Warm weather arouses them and several will gather to work on a nest. Only one becomes the dominant queen even though the others are fertile females too. If the first queen should die, the second in line would take her place and so on down the line.

Batches of wasps are hatched during the warm weather when food is available. Adults drink nectar and juice from smashed or rotting fruits. They also catch insects, pre-chew them and feed them to the larvae.

The first. generations are all female workers - unmated. Their job is to care for the larvae. They catch the insects and feed them to the larvae.

Near the end of summer, unfertilized eggs are laid into the cylinders and fertile male adults hatch out. These mate with the females and die along with all the rest except the mated young queens. These find suitable hibernating sites for winter.

Paper wasps are not a belligerent as hornets and yellow jackets. They are useful in killing insect pests.

The Bald-faced hornet has a similar life cycle. In the spring the female crawls out from where she had been hibernating. As the eggs in her body begin to grow, she begins to build her nest. A small hanging nest from the gray pulp she makes by chewing wood.

The first generation also are only females. All workers. They must feed the larvae that follow. The feeding is done several times a day to each grub-like larva. It's a diet of pre-chewed insects too. These larvae will seal their own cells as they prepare to change into adult hornets.

Sometimes the nests get bigger than footballs. It is always built in the open, quite visible, but well-prepared for an attack.

Inside are the six-sided cells for eggs and larvae. As new adults hatch the old cells are cleaned and reused. Outside there are layers of gray thin paper which insulates against heat and cold. The entrance is at the bottom.

The males come along in late summer or early fall. They too are from unfertilized eggs. They mate and die as do the old queens, workers and even the young that arrived late. Only the young mated females crawl into the soil or litter to hibernate. The whole future existence of wasps depend on these females surviving the winter. The following year this cycle is repeated.

These are beneficial to for controlling insects. These hornets are more hostile than the paper wasps. They are very protective of that big ball of gray paper and will attack, pursue and sting repeatedly if disturbed. Their nests are not safe to collect until late fall or winter.

If there are any questions you have about Blue Ridge Wildlife, or if you have suggestions for this type of articles, Fran welcomes hearing from you. Her address is:

Fran Stoddard
Rt. 5, Box 34
Marion, N.C. 28752