Everyone is familiar with the flat, upside down paper nests of the Red Wasp (Polistes carolina) hanging from house eaves or hidden in surprising places. We have a big one way up under the peak of the roof of Camp Salmen’s main picnic pavilion. It’s well beyond reach and unlikely to do anyone harm. There are lessons in family values and sisterhood in the life cycle and habits of this insect.
The queen and perhaps a sister or two emerge from winter hibernation to collaborate on a small nest. They fly off to grab small mouthfuls of wood to spit out and form little hexagonal paper cells where the queen’s larvae are deposited. As summer progresses more cells are added, larvae and sisters are made and the nest grows into one big, giggly sorority party. Boys aren’t welcome and are produced only toward the end of the season for mating purposes only. Afterward they’re expected to fly off somewhere and die.
This sisterhood does a few other wasp-like things. They nurture their larvae by stinging hapless caterpillars to quiet them down and then tear hunks of their flesh from their comatose bodies to feed to the young’uns. They also sip nectar in ladylike fashion. The queen goes on a rampage late in spring by taking over other nests, aggressively and viciously driving off its occupants and establishing her own iron rule. She also gives this same treatment to her poor, aging sisters who originally helped her build her nest. She drives them away and they have to try to start their own nests before the cruel winds of winter approach.
How to avoid wasps: In warm months always assume nests can be in any quiet, hidden, covered area. I’ve found them under picnic tables, roof eaves and banana leaves, hanging from tree branches and fences, inside trailer hitches, birdhouses, sheds, horizontal pipes, electrical switch boxes and most any little-used space with openings for them to come and go. You should definitely look first before you proceed or both you and the wasp(s) will be unduly surprised. You’ll get stung and the wasp will go on about her business because, unlike the heroic honeybees that lose their stinger and die, wasps can sting again and again.
Once you locate a nest, then it’s a matter of proximity. If you’re a little too close, all the wasps will turn in unison and stare at you, pricking up their pointy black wings, ready to pounce. If you’re lucky and happen to notice this first, the hair raised on the back of your neck will tell you to back off, otherwise — surprise, surprise.
At safe distances Red Wasps are a “go along, get along” kind of stinging insect and will leave you alone if you leave them alone. I recently discovered that, unbeknownst to me, a nice size nest was not three feet from my head every day I entered our well house last summer. However, some people elect not to take any chances and if they see a nest they apply a wasp spray that has a robust, far-reaching stream.