Killer Wasps!

Mischocyttarus wasp, Napo, Ecuador

I’m on my way out the door to attend the fabulous Insect Fear Film Festival, so this will be short.

This year’s festival theme is Killer Wasps, featuring two truly atrocious hymenopterous thrillers, Monster from Green Hell (1958) and Swarmed(2005). To counter any lingering anti-wasp paranoia, here are shots of some rather gentle Mischocyttarus paper wasps I photographed recently in Ecuador. These large brown insects let me stick my lens and flash right up in their nest and didn’t even raise a wing in protest.

Mischocyttarus are social animals, living on small nests made from processed wood pulp. Colonies typically comprise an egg-laying queen and several workers who do most of the foraging and brood care.

Evolutionary biologists find Mischocyttarus and other paper wasps fascinating. Although these insects are social in a similar way to the well-studied honey bees and ants, their societies are small, with only a few individuals, and the queens and workers are morphologically identical. Indeed, workers are capable of assuming a queen’s role. It is a society threaded together by the interactions among only a few wasps, not just altruistic cooperation but internal power struggles. It’s an entomological soap opera, one whose resolution holds clues to how the big insect societies first emerged.

Anyway. I’m off to watch the much less interesting spectacle of mutant Hollywood death wasps, or whatever.

9 thoughts on “Killer Wasps!”

  1. Fantastic photos! I’ve found that I can get pretty close to a lot of stinging insects and they don’t pay much attention to me- unless I step on their nest or something.

  2. Oh boy. From what I see in the trailer – you will have a tough evening! But then again: this is so bad, it will be fun.

    I have been through pretty much all of the films of the killerbee-kind by now (yes, this is what we call “research” in my field!), so I can imagine. Enjoy!

  3. How lovely to read a sentence with the term “hymenopterous” used in a (relatively) off-hand manner. :}

    I am very fond of paper wasps: as a paper-maker who uses found materials, I find paper wasps fascinating. They produce a ‘paper’ that is tough enough to withstand extreme weather conditions for almost a year. When I have used old (abandoned) nests as part of the paper I make, it takes a lot of patience to break down the material to a point where I can use it. And the patterns in the nests are wonderful.

    You can alter the appearance of a paper wasp nest as it is being built by providing alternative materials close to the building site. Decaying wood with coloration from minerals (the wasps don’t always pick what I provide) can result in nests with stripes of pink or orange or red. This sometimes works with hornets as well, but they are trickier (read dangerous) to get close to.

      1. I know of some women who do a similar thing by providing various precious and semi-precious stones to caddishfly larvae for making their larval cases. When the larvae metamorphosize, these folks collect the cases to make jewelry.

  4. Thank you for making me feel all warm and maternal about wasps. I’m a bee lover myself, and tend to misjudge wasps as rather vindictive creatures. However in researching for my ceramics degree I came across this page and now I feel wasps may just be kindred spirits. They are master craftsmen after all so I can only aspire to be more like them.

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