Insect Friends (Wasps) and Enemies (Mosquitoes)

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This started out as a comment on Rambo's post about mosquito traps...I've posted insect stories at paid sites and blog sites, so why not post about my creepy-crawly friends here?

At different times I've shared my Blue Ridge Mountain home with five species of wasps and hornets. It occurs to me that they could be graded, as species, from A (or A+) to F (or F-). Polistes fuscatus can be really useful as non-cuddly pets (unless someone is so badly allergic that the risk of an accidental sting is too great), and Vespa crabro is an invasive nuisance species with, so far as I know, no redeeming features whatsoever.

1. Vespa crabro, the European Hornet, is sometimes called the only "true hornet" in North America (our native hornet species can be scientifically classified as big wasps). They nest in the ground. They're not actually as aggressive as some people think; they'll check you out and bond with you in the same way the other species's just that they're so big that, if they do sting, you'll feel the reaction for days. These insects are so nasty that my Granola Green father once sneaked into town and bought a can of poison spray to kill them. Since they live mostly underground, the poison spray didn't get rid of the colony and probably did more harm than good, as poisons usually do. What did get rid of the hornets was a skunk. Skunks will eat wasps and hornets if they can get them, and will dig in and clean out colonies of ground-nesting wasps.

2. Dolichovespula maculata, the White-Faced Hornet, is the native species. They build large paper nests, usually in trees, but one summer they built one on my porch (they were going where the tiger mosquitoes were). So here I stand to testify that they're not aggressive. When living close to a human, like paper wasps they actually learned to recognize their resident human and protect it from flies and mosquitoes. Once as I walked into a dark room I felt a fly buzz past my back and reflexively swatted at it. I heard a loud buzz and, as I turned on a light, saw one of the resident hornets fly up around me, nonverbally saying "Never fear, your hornet housemate's right here!" No sting, no threat display. That hornet wasn't even worried that I'd swatted at it; its attention was on that fly.

The trouble is that hornets are very loyal to their relatives, and as their nests grow there may be 500 relatives living in a nest, and if you do seem to be threatening the nest or one of the family the whole clan will charge out to fight. Not fun. They don't have enough brains to process the concept of "...but I didn't mean to step on him." So during the winter, when the hornets were hibernating, I sweet-talked a taller person into relocating the nest about eight feet up a tree, several yards away from the house, high enough that most other creatures wouldn't see them. The hornets accepted their new location. Later, one day when a sick kitten had attracted a lot of flies into the yard, I took down a flyswatter and started whacking, and a hornet flew out and nonverbally said "If you're not going to eat those flies, may I have them?" I kept swatting flies, and the hornets kept hauling them off, for about half an hour. They're still around; they keep out of my way.

White-Faced Hornets are actually considered a threatened species. Willingness to live with them is a real test of True Green commitment, as distinct from Poison Green political exploitation...but they're not actually hard to live with. I respect them, and they respect me, similar to the "relationship" my family have always had with the house snake Gulegi. Most years we don't actually see each other, which is good, but each species benefits from the others being here.

3. Polistes carolinensis, the Red Wasp, is another native species. Jesse Stuart used to run on about how peaceable they were. That used to put me off Jesse Stuart, because I once accidentally touched one and the sting made half of my hand swell up--carolinensis aren't that much bigger than fuscatus, but they pack a lot more venom. I've killed a few Red Wasps. However, in order to stay on good terms with the friendlier species, I've become cautious about doing this...paper wasps compete to some extent, but they respect each other and may protect each other! So nowadays I just try to encourage Red Wasps to relocate, as much as possible, without violence. They really are peaceable if not threatened.

4. Polistes dominula (or dominulus, depending on where you look them up), the European Paper Wasp, is an invasive species. These "Little Bosses" edge out native wasp species not by direct aggression (they're smaller) but by having more diverse food preferences and reusing empty nests next year. None of our three paper wasp species builds a big enough nest to insulate them through the winter; adults spend the winter underground, then re-nest in spring...and the Europeans can take over old nests of Red and Northern families.

Dominula can be annoying; they'll do things like building a nest right on a door and threatening or even attacking people who use the door, rather than moving off the door. However, they're small enough that, although most people feel the sting, it's not terribly painful. And one summer I did manage to coexist with one who built a nest right on the middle of the front door. I thought about destroying the nest, then watched the wasp wrestle a large fly into her nest and could almost hear her nonverbally saying "I'm just a poor little hardworking single mother." So I set out to condition her to accept that I had a right to use that door, and it worked. She ignored my use of the door. She pestered my insect-phobic mother, though, unmercifully; I've trained my wasps to accept my Significant Other, and tried to train them to accept Mother, but I think they can smell a phobic reaction on a human.

Just because dominula are invasive and I'm partial to my fuscatus, I set out to maintain the dominance of fuscatus at my home by destroying old empty nests in winter. This works.

A fun fact about dominula and fuscatus is that, although some people call fuscatus "golden" paper wasps, they're actually darker than dominula--where I live, most fuscatus live up to their Latin name (the "dark" species), and anybody would think "golden" referred to the mostly yellow dominula.

5. Polistes fuscatus, the Northern Paper Wasp, is the dominant native species in my part of the world. Some claim to have seen them eating rotten wood or licking plant nectar; others say they live entirely on insects. I've tested this and found that, although my fuscatus often approach people sipping sweet drinks (and a young relative once inadvertently swallowed one that was drowning in a can of soda pop!), so far as I can tell they're always chasing smaller insects that were attracted to the sugary stuff. It's definitely a good idea to avoid leaving sweet food and drinks uncovered, and avoid drinking sugary drinks out of cans. (Swallowing a wasp left the poor kid with allergy reactions that can be triggered by any or all insects, and can go all the way to anaphylaxis, for life. She won't visit my house, now. I don't blame her.)

But I did most of my growing up, the happiest parts of it, in old wood-frame houses where Polistes fuscatus kept the flies and mosquitoes away. I got stung, once, at age five, when a wasp chased a fly into my bed. I said "ouch," but, actually, the pain wasn't that bad; most fuscatus don't even sting, and the ones who do don't contain a lot of venom. Depending on which individual stings where, being stung by these wasps may feel like picking up a splinter, or like being pricked by a hot needle. No swelling. No bleeding.

And furthermore, if you allow one or two dominant females to check you out (which may or may not involve their flying close to you or touching you) on the first day they start flying, fuscatus will accept you as part of their territory.

Part of my Real Mountain Woman mystique is calling them "friends." Seriously, I'm not sure that wasps have enough brain to process concepts like "friendship" or "neighborliness." They have awesome instincts to orient themselves to what's in their home territory, but very little problem-solving intelligence. But they are loyal and protective of their territory. If that includes you, and they notice that some other creature seems to be attacking you, they'll fly out and threaten the attacker. My own threat display includes "I can set my wasps on you"...but actually the wasps make their own decision, based on their own instinctive reactions, whether to bluff and back down, or call out the whole neighborhood watch and sting the daylights out of somebody. If my wasps do hurt an intruder, e.g. my former brother-in-law, he well and truly deserved it. They're not vicious animals. Their instincts seem to warn them that stinging a larger animal may hurt them more than it does their enemy. So most of the time they're peaceable.

And they eat mostly insects that would otherwise be nuisances. They're one of the few natural predators that aren't deterred by the dense coats and cyanide-rich diet of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, e.g. (They can get a lot of nest material out of a tent caterpillar; their "paper" contains a lot of chewed-up keratin.) They've even been known to chew up a "tobacco worm." They like flies, they like mosquitoes, and they really love the local gnats who spend their adult lives looking for a chance to dive into some living creature's eye. The gnats earn their keep by eating fungus during the longer larval stage of their lives, thus keeping our damp natural environment from being totally consumed by fungi...but you know what any foreign body in your eye is like. Ouch Ouch Ouch. Paper wasps actively protect their humans from that specific kind of inconvenience.

One year, one of my paper wasps didn't build a nest, but spent most of her seven-week life roosting near my bed, keeping the tiger mosquitoes, gnats, and light moths away. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the wasp spending that much time that close to me, but when she finally lay down and died and the gnats started getting in through the window screen, I missed that wasp.

You can tell paper wasps' gender by their size. Sexually mature females are bigger than asexual females, and all females are so much bigger than the males that you'd guess the males to be a different species. Asexual "worker" females usually stay around a "queen" and help build and tend her nest, but if they happen to outlive her they may outlive her and take over as "queens." If you happen to see the queen and her workers together, the queen is noticeably bigger--up to a full inch long--and yes, that extra size accommodates the stinging apparatus, such as it is in this species. Mostly you meet queens, and workers take their cues about your being part of the territory from the queens.

I still don't enjoy physical contact with any insect. I never will. It's not about any emotion of fear in the conscious layer of my brain; it's a cerebellar reflex, inherited from those ancestors who were not devoured by ants before they left the subtropical zone. But I've learned to live in peace with the three "threatened native" insect species, because they protect me from the insect species that would otherwise be real nuisances...without my having to depend on poisons and get sucked into a Vicious Spray Cycle, where less informed humans try to poison nuisance species, succeed in killing predators, and then have to deal with more of the nuisance species next year.

As a Granola Green toddler I heard about keeping mantids as house pets, because a praying mantis will perch on your shoulder and pick off mosquitoes as they approach you. Meh. I'm always pleased to meet a mantis in the garden, or a dragonfly for that matter, but I don't care to get that close to a large insect, even a friendly one. I prefer the ones that spend their time picking off the pest species before the pests approach me. So I've become positively fond of my Northern Paper Wasps.