Yellow Jacket Wasps feeding on rotting pears.

Wasps

An agressive flying and stinging insect.

Yellow Jacket Wasps feeding on rotting pears.

Yellow Jacket Wasps feeding on rotting pears.

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To some people wasps look similar to bees but when observed closely, they are quite different. Bees have much smaller wings in general when contrasted against wasps.

Most prevlant and common wasp species are the yellow jacket and the paper wasps.

Categorization - Social or Solitary:

There are solitary wasps and social wasps. Adult solitary wasps generally live and operate alone and most do not construct nests and all the adults are fertile. By contrast, social wasps exist in colonies numbering up to several thousand strong, they build a nest and in some cases not all of the colony can reproduce. Generally just the queen and male wasps can mate, whilst the majority of the colonies are made up of sterile female workers.

Characteristics

The following characteristics are present in most wasps:

  • Two pairs of wings, An ovipositor or stinger (which is only present in females because it derives from the ovipositor, a female sex organ).
  • Few or no hairs (in contrast to bees)
  • Nearly all wasps are terrestrial; only a few specialized parasitic groups are aquatic.
  • Predators or parasitoids, mostly on other terrestrial insects; some species of Pompilidae, such as the tarantula hawk, specialize in using spiders as prey, and various parasitic wasps use spiders or other arachnids as reproductive hosts.
  • Wasps are critically important in natural biocontrol. Almost every pest insect species has a wasp species that is a predator or parasite upon it. Parasitic wasps are also increasingly used in agricultural pest control as they have little impact on crops. Wasps also constitute an important part of the food chain.

    Anatomy and gender

    Anatomically there is a great deal of variation between different species of wasp. Like all insects, wasps have a hard exoskeleton covering their 3 main body parts. These parts are known as the head, metasoma and mesosoma. Wasps also have a connective region joining the first and second segments of the mesosoma known as the petiole. Like all insects, wasps have 3 sets of 2 legs. In addition to their compound eyes, wasps also have several simple eyes known as ocelli. These are typically arranged in a triangular formation just forward of an area of the head known as the vertex.

    It is possible to distinguish between certain wasp species genders based on the number of divisions on their antennae. Male Yellowjacket wasps for example have 13 divisions per antenna, while females have 12. Males can in some cases be differentiated from females by virtue of the fact that the upper region of the male's mesosoma(called the tergum) consists of an additional terga. The total number of terga is typically 6. The difference between sterile female worker wasps and queens also varies between species but generally the queen is noticeably larger than both males and other females.

    Wasps can be differentiated from bees as bees have a flattened hind basitarsus. Unlike bees wasps generally lack plumose hairs. They vary in the number and size of hairs they have between species.

    Diet

    Generally wasps are parasites as larvae, and feed only on nectar as adults. Some wasps are omnivorous but this is relatively uncommon, they feed on a variety of fallen fruit, nectar and carrion. Many wasps are predatory, preying on other insects. Certain social wasp species, such as yellowjackets, scavenge for dead insects to provide for their young. In turn the brood provides sweet secretions for the adults.

    In parasitic species the first meals are almost always provided from the animal the adult wasp used as a host for its young. Adult male wasps sometimes visit flowers to obtain nectar to feed on in much the same manner as honey bees. Occasionally, some species, such as yellowjackets, invade honeybee nests and steal honey and/or brood.

    Wasp parasitism

    With most species, adult parasitic wasps themselves do not take any nutrients from their prey, and, much like bees, butterflies, and moths they typically derive all of their nutrition from nectar. Parasitic wasps are typically parasitoids, and extremely diverse in habits, many laying their eggs in inert stages of their host (egg or pupa), or sometimes paralyzing their prey by injecting it with venom through their ovipositor. They then inject the host with eggs or deposit them upon the host externally. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the prey, which provides them with a first meal. After this point most wasps must obtain their own food and fend for themselves.

    Social wasp reproductive cycle

    Wasps do not reproduce via mating flights like bees. Instead social wasps reproduce between a fertile queen and male wasp, in some cases queens may be fertilized by the sperm of several males. After successfully mating, the males sperm cells are stored in a tightly packed ball inside the queen. The sperm cells are kept stored in a dormant state until they're needed the following spring. At a certain time of year (often around autumn time) the bulk of the wasp colony dies away, leaving only the young mated queens alive. During this time they leave the nest and find a suitable area to hibernate for the winter.

    Early spring

    After emerging from hibernation during early spring, the young queens search for a suitable nesting site. Upon finding an area for their future colony, the queen constructs a basic paper fiber nest roughly the size of a walnut into which she will begin to lay eggs.

    Late spring, early summer

    The sperm that were stored earlier and kept dormant over winter is now used to fertilize the eggs being laid. The storage of sperm inside the female queen allows her to lay a considerable number of fertilized eggs without the need for repeated mating with a male wasp. For this reason a single female queen is capable of building an entire colony from only herself. The queen initially raises the first several sets of wasp eggs until enough sterile female workers exist to maintain the offspring without her assistance. All of the eggs produced at this time are sterile female workers who will begin to construct a more elaborate nest around their queen as they grow in number.

    End of summer and winter

    By this time the nest sizes has expanded considerably and now numbers between several hundred and several thousand wasps. Towards the end of the summer, the queen begins to run out of stored sperm to fertilize more eggs. These eggs develop into fertile males and fertile female queens. The male drones then fly out of the nest and find a mate thus perpetuating the wasp reproductive cycle. In most species of social wasp the young queens mate in the vicinity of their home nest and do not travel like their male counterparts do. The young queens will then leave the colony to hibernate for the winter once the other worker wasps and founder queen have started to die off. After successfully mating with a young queen, the male drones die off as well. Generally, young queens and drones from the same nest do not mate with each other, this ensures more genetic variation within wasp populations, especially considering that all members of the colony are theoretically the direct genetic descendants of the founder queen and a single male drone. In practice however colonies can sometimes consist of the offspring of several male drones. Wasp queens generally (but not always) create new nests each year, this is probably because the weak construction of most nests render them uninhabitable after the winter.

    Unlike most honey bee queens, wasp queens typically only live for one year (although exceptions are possible). Also, contrary to popular belief queen wasps do not organize their colony or have any raised status and hierarchical power within the social structure. They are more simply the reproductive element of the colony and the initial builder of the nest in those species which construct nests.

    Wasp caste structure

    Not all social wasps operate a caste structure of permanent queens, males and sterile female workers. Paper wasps for example consist solely of male and female wasps. All female wasps are capable of becoming the colonies queen and this process is determined by which female worker successfully lays eggs first and begins construction of the nest. Evidence suggests that females compete amongst each other by eating the eggs of other rival females. The queen is the wasp therefore that can eat the most other eggs while ensuring her own survive (often achieved by laying the most). This process theoretically determines the strongest and most reproductively capable female and selects her as the queen. Once the first eggs have hatched the female workers stop laying eggs and instead forage for the new queen and feed the young. Paper wasp nests are also considerably smaller than many other social wasp nests, housing only around 250 wasps, compared to the several thousand common with yellowjackets.

    Nesting habits

    Polistes dominulus building nestThe type of nest produced by wasps can depend on the species and location. All social wasps produce paper pulp nests on trees, in attics, holes in the ground or other such sheltered areas with access to the outdoors. By contrast solitary wasps are generally parasitic and few build nests at all. Unlike honey bees, wasps have no wax producing glands. They instead produce a paper-like substance primarily from wood pulp. Wood fibers are gathered locally from weathered wood, softened by chewing and mixing with saliva. The pulp is then used to make combs with cells for brood rearing.

    Solitary wasps

    The nesting habits of solitary wasps are as diverse as those of social wasps. Mud daubers construct mud cells in sheltered places typically on the side of walls. Potter wasps, by contrast, build vase-like cells from clay attached to the twigs of trees. Digger wasps burrow into soil and then tap down the earth around the brooding chamber with pebbles to fill the mouth of the burrow, protecting it from both the elements and predators. Most solitary wasps do not build nests at all and prefer naturally occurring shelter.

    Social wasps

    The nests of social wasps such as yellow jackets are first constructed by the queen and reach about the size of a walnut before sterile female workers take over construction. The queen initially starts the nest by making a single layer or canopy and working outwards until they reaches the edges of the cavity. Beneath the canopy she constructs a stalk to which she can attach several cells, these cells are where the first eggs will be laid. The queen then continues to work outwards to the edges of the cavity after which she adds another tier. This process is repeated each time adding a new tier until eventually (around July in Europe) enough female workers have been born and matured to take over construction of the nest leaving the queen to focus on reproduction. For this reason, the size of a nest is generally a good indicator of approximately how many female workers there are in the colony. Social wasp colonies often have populations exceeding several thousand female workers and at least one queen. Paper wasps (a variety of social wasp) do not construct their nests in tiers but rather in flat single combs.