4 May 2009

One of natures great engineers

We went out in the garden to do some work yesterday (see last blog) and as I stood on the doorstep I could hear a little noise – looking up there was a wasp working on her nest on the door frame. It’s a fabulous structure, but we couldn’t leave it there. I just managed to snatch a handful of photos before Mr Boo removed it. And yes, my door frame does desperately need painting.

This was my first view of the nest, pretty much in silhouette in the door frame.

It was a stunningly clever structure and I was loathe to break it off, but having seen how large (and how fast) one got in a friend’s garden last summer, decided we needed to be rid of it at this stage.

My reading would suggest that at this time of year, the larger than average wasp building the structure was probably a queen. It seems that all wasps except queens die off over winter and she survives having holed up somewhere safe in an old nest or new small one she makes just for the purpose. In late April/early May, the queen starts off making a small new nest in order to lay her eggs.

She was fertilised last year and lays her eggs in the new part-made nest and as they hatch, they continue with the structure in order to make a full size nest for the entire colony. The nests can grow up to 30cm (1′) in diameter or more and will likely be occupied all summer. Looks like we were right to destroy it before it took hold, she won’t have been alone for long.

She was very, very annoyed that we undid all her handiwork,
had it been in a better position, we might have left it to develop
and observe, but it really had to go from where it was.

She disappeared inside at one point and I was hoping to see what she
doing, but I was in a very precarious position with a heavy camera and
long lens in one hand and too close to focus, so ducking further
further back to try and focus, so it has a little movement blur.

Last summer I experienced the same little noise when out in the garden and it took me several days to identify it. That too was a wasp – on that occasion he was gathering his building materials rather than using them. He was working away on an old wooden garden chair, removing bits of timber in long thin strips, which he appeared to sheer off with his mouth parts and coil it up as he worked – when he’d got a decent sized piece, he’d fly off out of sight with it, only to return shortly and repeat the process. They apparently chew the wood up into a pulp with their saliva and this gives rise to a paper-type product for the structure of their nests.

Over a few days, he stripped the surface off a lot of my chair. If I went close to either observe or shoo him off, he’d just vanish round the back and continue working, thinking I didn’t know he was there, removing my garden furniture a few grams at a time. The little noise of timber being stripped being the only clue that he was still beavering away on the timber for his home.

In this frame, most of the timber surface has been removed, you can
see the exposed rough fibres and the odd remaining patches of varnished
surface where he’s ‘missed a bit’.

3 thoughts on “One of natures great engineers

  1. Ah – I was going to suggest last night that your ‘he’ was more than likely a ‘she’ :-)

    I have a nest here about the size of my head. Taken from my uncle’s loft many years ago. It is the most amazing thing – it lives in a fishbowl and more than one visitor has looked at it and thought it was a brain!

    I love the wasps. We had small nests in the potting shed one year and it was great watching them fly in laden down with aphids and caterpillars. We had a cautious but amicable relationship for one summer.

  2. i hate wasps but their structures are quite beautiful, we have a wooden swing seat in the garden that they painstakingly stripped the top layer from. it was amazingly methodical – the whole thing changed colour! we had a session re-treating all the wood around the garden last year, so it will be interesting to see what the wasps make of that – though i don’t suppose it will stop them! great post boo :)

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