Mark Zuckerberg would not be one of the 100 wealthiest and most influential people in the world without the help of wasps. I mean the six-legged kind (whether or not two-legged WASPs should get any of the credit is something for attorneys to discuss and will not be addressed here).
It’s a lengthy timeline but easy enough to follow*:
There you have it — if there had not been any social insects, there would be no social primates and, therefore, there would be no need for a social network. When you think about it, Facebook isn’t just an online community. It’s a kind of virtual hive. Mark’s success owes more to invertebrates than he ever imagined.
Not all wasps are gregarious, of course. The majority of species, including mud daubers (Sphecidae), pollen wasps (Masarinae) and potter wasps (Eumeninae) are solitary. You know the type…quiet, poorly developed interpersonal skills, keep to themselves, rarely cause much trouble. We’ll respect their privacy, at least for now.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, we have two basic types of social wasps: paper wasps (Polistes spp.) and yellowjackets (Vespula spp. and Dolichovespula spp.). The two groups are often lumped together under the “hornet” tag, but the introduced European hornet (Vespa crabro) is the only true member of that family found in North America.
With a few exceptions, wasps have two pairs of wings and can be distinguished from bees by that narrow waist (aka petiole) between the thorax and abdomen. The ovipositor (an organ used to prepare and position eggs) of a fertile queen becomes the stinger of an infertile worker female; males are not capable of stinging. Unlike honeybees (Apis spp.), wasps do not leave their stinger behind and are able to deliver multiple injections of venom.
Adult wasps feed on nectar and, as a result, can be classified as pollinators. Some social wasps are omnivorous, feeding on fallen fruit and carrion as well; yellowjackets are especially attracted to open garbage cans and Dumpsters, drawn perhaps to the sweet, sticky spillage from nearly empty soda cans and bottles as well as other types of decaying leftovers.
Wasps come in a rainbow of colors, including vivid yellows, metallic blues and bright reds (helpful rule of thumb — a flamboyant wardrobe means “don’t touch!” backed up by poison or venom). Because they often share a brown or black and yellow color scheme, paper wasps may be misidentified as yellowjackets. Not that I’m encouraging your customers to get up close and personal to make an identification; the easiest way to tell them apart is by their nests.
Paper wasps and yellowjackets will nest in trees, under building eaves, in walls and just about any other place that offers some protection from the elements. Both types of wasps use chewed wood fibers as the main construction material, even when building underground, as yellowjackets are inclined to do.
Paper wasp combs attach with a single filament and consist of one tier of adjacent papery hexagonal brood cells for developing larvae. Each cell is open on one end so you can actually see the contents, if you choose (but please tell customers to keep a safe distance). Typically, a mature nest contains 20 to 30 adults and rarely grows to more than 200 cells. Paper wasps usually attack only when they or the nest is threatened, but they are territorial.
(As an interesting aside, the northern paper wasp [Polistes fuscatus] has extremely variable facial patterns and recent research suggests its facial recognition abilities are similar to those of humans and chimpanzees [Pan spp.]. Obviously, individuality affords some benefit, even among drones — so much for network anonymity.)
Yellowjackets prefer to raise their young in a kind of fortress that looks more like a stereotypic hive with layers and layers of brood cell combs. The whole structure is completely enclosed with the exception of a single entrance hole. Queens establish new colonies each spring, often returning to the site of a previous nest. (The location is identified by a chemical scent marker recognizable even to a first-year queen.) However, if the structure is particularly well protected from the weather — in the wall of a house, say — it may become a perennial nest, populated year-round. Yellowjacket hives may range in size from several inches (at the beginning of the colony’s history) to enormous structures measuring 6 feet or more and housing as many as 20,000 adult workers.
Wasp control is dangerous for the untrained, especially for people who have heart conditions or known allergies to the venom, so it’s important for PMPs to know what they’re dealing with before they take action. There’s a huge difference between avoiding 20 winged assailants and outrunning 20,000. Moreover, yellowjackets tend to be more aggressive — they don’t give up the pursuit as quickly.
Don’t be too quick to declare war on wasps, though. In addition to their important role in plant pollination, nearly every pest insect species has at least one wasp species that preys on or parasitizes it, making wasps a critically important natural biocontrol that benefit agricultural and even home gardeners. If that’s not enough to convince you to live and let live with wasps, imagine your life without social media!
I’m serious — next time you see some wasps congregating around your customer’s front porch, take a moment to say thanks…just before you treat them with an appropriately labeled insecticide.
When you’re finished, don’t forget to post about it on Facebook!
*NOTE: As new discoveries are made, scientists continually discuss, argue and refine our understanding of the evolutionary history of life on Earth. I realize this timeline is simplistic but it is based on currently available research. My intention was to create a captivating introduction to a post on wasps by illustrating a connection between Zuckerberg, social networks and the Vespidae family. If you have a nit to pick about my portrayal of the fossil record and its accuracy — cut me a little slack, okay? I’m a writer and an urban wildlife biologist, not a taxonomist.
About the author: Kieran Lindsey is associate director and fellow, Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, College of Natural Resources and Environment, Virginia Tech. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.