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Twilight of a beautiful garden-variety killer

October 25, 2014

A pretty confused looking wasp dithering on the lid of a blue container bin.

It’s autumn and the wasps are sick…and…tired…of…living.

When yellow jacket wasps appear in the spring they are immature and tentative young things — a bit slow off the mark but still quick to become the perfect little killing machines they are born to bee, oops, I mean be.

Yellow jackets aren’t bees. Aside from the yellow and black colouration they don’t even look like bees. And they don’t collect honey, they collect kills.

Wasps: the enemy of your enemy

Yellow jacket wasps are sleek aerodynamic predators that consume up to 10 times their weight in other insects.  It so happens their tastes run to garden pests such as caterpillars, grubs and spiders so gardeners actually welcome them.

Adult female worker wasps feed developing wasp larvae the protein-rich liquified remains of killed insects. In return the larvae secrete a sugar concentrate high in amino acids for the adult workers who survive mostly on sugars an carbohydrates.

Their high-carb, high-sugar diet essentially means worker wasps enjoy the same junk food diet that many humans do and as summer wears on they increasingly hover around dumpsters and recycling container bins.

By late summer the diminishing number of larvae can’t supply anywhere near enough sugar concentrate and foraging wasps, greedy for the sweet residue in pop and alcohol beverage containers, become a binner’s constant companion.

By late September it’s not unusual to have 10 to 30 wasps buzzing me as I go about binning — that is to say, collecting returnable beverage containers for their cash deposit.

Born to be bad tempered

The wasps buzz and hurtle and generally try to get in my face as I collect the containers, which they crawl over and inside. And they can get downright indignant when I shoo them away to close a blue bin lid or tie off a garbage bag of cans I’ve collected.

My feeling about wasps is that they’ll attack and sting if they are defending their nests or feel threatened but otherwise they will just act aggressively because that’s how they’re hardwired to act.

As a child I was once swarmed by hornet wasps defending their nest. Yellow jacket wasps are of the same Vespidae family as bed-tempered hornets (and they can look virtually identical) but in a decade of collecting returnable beverage containers I have never once been stung by either a hornet or a yellow jacket wasp.

Likewise I have never knowingly killed a wasp. They just don’t bother me. if anything I may slow down a bit to give the frantic little foragers a bit more time to suck up sugar water.

Death, where is thy sting?

Fall is a busy time for the female worker wasps — there are male reproductives to be fed as well as a new fertilized queen who needs to be fed to the point where she can survive the winter on her fat reserves alone.

And then there’s the fact that aside from the one queen, every other wasp in a colony has to hurry up and die.

By late October these supremely fast and agile predators become slow and befuddled. They run down like clockwork mechanisms — easy prey for birds and fungi and parasites.

It’s sad to see but at the same time it’s strangely wonderful because it’s only in autumn, when they slow down once and for all, that you can really get a good look at wasps to appreciate how truly beautiful they are. Click on the image to enlarge it and see for yourself.

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Thanks for this……. Amazing picture, once again.

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