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Paper Wasps: Mean to You, Mean to Each Other

Photo Credit: Trent Heard

If you thought paper wasps were aggressive towards you, you should see how they act towards each other.

Here’s a brief overview of paper wasp life, start to finish:

Last year around this time, a young paper wasp queen started a new nest by herself, raising her first generation of daughters as a single mother. These early generations of daughters were reproductively sterile and incapable of laying eggs; their purpose was to expand the colony and to feed their developing sisters. As the queen’s daughters took over the responsibilities of brood care, nest construction, and foraging, the queen dedicated herself to laying eggs and producing more sterile daughters to help with the ever-increasing maintenance of a growing colony.

As the end of summer approached, the queen switched gears and began producing fertile males and females. These daughters were different from the daughters of old in that they were reproductively fertile and capable of laying their own eggs and producing their own offspring. These new daughters would eventually find a protected place to spend the winter, while their mother-queen, brothers, and sterile sisters died off with the changing of the seasons.

But until then, the queen had to share the nest with these fertile daughters. In the world of paper wasps, there is only one queen, and there is no sharing of the throne. When her daughters began laying eggs, they essentially challenged her rule. She retaliated by eating their eggs, defending her own from attack, and biting and lunging at her daughters until they submitted to her dominance. The queen can recognize each of her daughters by their distinctive facial patterns and can remember which daughters had submitted and which daughters were still defiant. The queen would continue to bully any daughters that attempted to dethrone her until they accepted their position in the colony as workers.

With the onset of winter, the queen and her sterile daughters die. Her fertile daughters go into hibernation, biding their time until spring when they can become the uncontested queen of their own colony. While most new colonies are founded by a lone queen, called the foundress, sometimes multiple queens work together in the formation of a new nest. Usually these queens are related, but sometimes they are not. In this case, too, the queens fight for the right to lay eggs, committing aggressive acts towards one another until the biggest, meanest, and most reproductively-capable queen comes out on top. The losers step down to perform the mundane tasks of colony upkeep or leave the nest with the hopes of dethroning some other queen in some other colony.

Have you noticed any paper wasps yet this year? The ones you’ll find flying around this time of year are young queens – foundresses – that have survived the winter, and they are looking for prime nesting real estate. While paper wasps won’t reuse an old nest from a previous year (except for the invasive European paper wasp), they might construct a new nest beside an old one if the location is ideal. They’re looking for areas that are undisturbed and sheltered from the elements – under eaves and ledges, in attics and chimneys, around door frames, and inside sheds. The queen requires wood to construct the nest, and so she scrapes wood from various surfaces – a park bench, an old barn, an unpainted fence – and mixes it with her saliva to form a water-resistant paper pulp. The moistened pulp is a little bit like papier-mâché. While forming the base of the nest, she secretes and applies a chemical to the “stem” to repels ants and protect her eggs from predation. She’ll make a couple of cells, lay some eggs, and begin caring for the first generation of sterile daughters.

It’s always best to deal with paper wasps when their nests are small. Inspect for nests in secluded areas with minimal human disturbance. Paper wasps will generally “bristle” before they attack.  You’ll know the bristling when you see it – every wasp on the nest will turn to face you, raising their abdomens high, with wings out to the sides. This is a warning – if you back off now, they won’t pursue. If you must approach a nest for any reason, you should do so at night when the wasps are least active.