Thursday, 11 November 2010

The wasp nest - catching up #1

Over the next few weeks I hope to catch up with some of the things I've done since August. Not everything of course, you really don't need to know I bought 24 cans of baked beans as they were on special offer, or became excited with the revelation that Jeeves and Wooster is available on ITV3 in the evening. But I will delve back into the distant archives of my mind and fish out some of the highlights, or what I think are highlights. You dear reader may be less than impressed and head off to trace the patterns on some gawdy flock wallpaper.

I digress. Back in July I helped Julie with a client of hers in Wiltshire. While pruning a clematis I heard a lot of insect droning and wondered where it was coming from. A good yank at a piece of newly chopped clematis revealed all, a wasp nest, accompanied with some seriously upset wasps and my first ever wasp sting.

All my own fault So I retreated to bathe my wounds and eat a piece of battenburg cake and a nice cup of tea; while making a mental note to go back to the nest once the wasps had died off in the autumn.

September dawned bright and cheery and I found myself back in the same garden doing some serious mowing. I checked the nest. All was empty, safe and best of all, it was still intact. So I had to have a look at it. I think wasp nests are one of THE most amazing natural domiciles in nature. This nest is a social wasp nest, almost certainly a tree wasp, who use paper (wood pulp) to construct their nests. The process is simple... and all begins with a Queen wasp in the spring. Building a rudimentary nest like a canopy on a stalk, she then lays eggs in cells which hatch to provide sterile female workers. Eventually when enough workers have been born, they take over the work of nest building, allowing the Queen to concentrate on reproduction. In simple terms the bigger the nest the bigger the colony.

But it is the construction which is so brilliant. in a few weeks it goes from being a rudimentary structure to a whole ecosystem, constructed with so much care it regulates temperature inside to an astonishing degree. All made from paper of course and therefore in the winter, it often will just fall apart. The paper though is from a wasp collecting wood fibre using its mandibles from a wooden source, such as a fence. It then chews the wood and mixes it with saliva then adds the paste to the nest structure which once dry is quite robust. But just think about it, a wasp mouth sized piece of chewed wood pulp is minute, just imagine how many wasp trips to and from a fence it has taken to make this nest, which was about the size of a rugby ball. Thousands.

Most species of social wasp have their combs aligned horizontally with cells located on the bottom of each comb. So to see that I had to cut the nest in half.

Just look at that. Isn't that just stunning? The brood chambers are in the centre and for want of a better word, the air conditioning system surrounds these. Nests don't normally hold a larder of food, which would go off and poison the colony with bacteria and fungal growth. But all of this effort occurs in just a few short months, because by late September the colony is dying and the Queen is going into hibernation, to begin the whole cycle next year. It's in September when you;re more likely to be stung, as when the colony collapses, the worker wasps lose these social cohesion and so fly around aimlessly, sadly just waiting to die. But that's nature for you.

So next time you're in the garden and being plagued by wasps, instead of swatting them, think on and how wonderful they are as a species. They're also the gardeners friend. I think every garden should have a wasp nest.


  1. Truly amazing pictures of the wasp's nest. I had a very small one in my shed a few years ago - sadly it crumbled as I touched it. Look out for my next post which is about Holystone North Wood. Thanks for your kind comment on my Remembrance Day post.

  2. I too think that wasp nests are fantastic. All the information you gave are things I didn't know, so I thank you for that. I often wondered why, in September, the wasps seemed like they didn't know what they were doing and now I know why. You've taken some wonderful shots there.

  3. i've never seen a wasp's nest and it is fascinating learning how they live. The construction of the nest is truly amazing! Thanks for the photos and explanation.

  4. Very pretty pictures! Wasp nests are really fascinating, and I like that you cut it in half to check out the interior. Great post!