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.