W E all like Butterflies because they are pretty, and Bees because they give us honey. But no one likes Wasps, for we are always afraid that they will sting, and they spoil our garden fruit. Yet wasps are very industrious and interesting. They act as scavengers, eating offal, raw meat, and insects, and they never sting unless they are frightened. You may be stung by pressing a wasp without knowing it. But people are very silly who flap them, and keep dodging about when they are near, for if you sit quite still they will not hurt you.
We are obliged to kill wasps, or we should be overrun by them and have no fruit, and the best way is to keep a good look out in the spring and early summer. The few big ones which come out then are queen wasps, or mothers, and each one will found a nest. It is more merciful to kill these, than to have to take nests in the summer, when there may be as many as 3,000 or 4,000 in each. Most boys have seen a wasps' nest dug out at night, but perhaps you have never looked at one carefully. Let us see how it is made.
When the queen-wasp comes out from under the moss or grass, where she has spent the winter, she looks out for a hole in the ground, left perhaps by a mouse or a mole. Creeping into it, she makes it larger by biting the earth and kicking it out with her hind feet. Then she flies away and scrapes small pieces of fibre off the trees and plants. You may sometimes see her scraping window frames or posts with her jaws. She is getting shreds of wood. With these she goes back to the hole, and works them up, with some gluey matter from her mouth, into a kind of greyish paper or cardboard.
Before it hardens she plasters this into the top of the hole, making a thick lump, which she glues to the roots of plants. Then she starts afresh for more fibre, and with it builds a few cells under the lump.
She lays an egg in each, and then goes on making more paper and more cells. In about eight days the first eggs are hatched into legless grubs, and she feeds them with honey and insects, still going on with her work. In about three weeks the grubs spin their cocoons, and in another week they come out as working wasps. After that, some come out almost every day, and the queen-wasp leaves them to do the work of building the nest and feeding the grubs, while she only lays eggs.
They not only build cells, they also cover the nest with a papery dome of several layers, which hangs like an open umbrella, from the lump at the top. When they have finished one comb it is like a round plate, and is smooth above, with a great number of cells underneath, all opening downwards.
The wasps then make several gluey pillars under this comb to hold up a new one below which they form in the same way as the first. So they go on till August, when there may be fifteen or sixteen flat round plates one below the other, joined by a number of pillars. Then they draw the papery dome in at the bottom so that the whole nest is a round or oval-shaped ball. As wasps do not store honey, these combs are only cells for grubs. The papery covering prevents the wet soaking in from the bank.
In August they build larger cells, out of which come males or drones which have longer antenna; than the workers and queen-wasps. These queens are larger than either the males or workers. They soon fly out of the nest and pair with the drones and as winter comes on the wasps kill any grubs which remain, and, growing sleepy and dull, die themselves, leaving only the queen-wasps to sleep till next spring. Then if you know where there is an old nest you can dig it carefully out and see the long tunnel in the bank, along which the wasps went in, so that no one might know where their nest was.
Some wasps build under the roofs of houses, especially the large wasps called Hornets, unless they choose the old trunk of a tree. If you look in a wood you may sometimes find the nest of the Wood-wasp hanging under the bough of a tree, though you would scarcely notice it unless you follow a Wood-wasp home. They are built like the other nests, only they have a thick papery column down the middle.
Besides the common wasps there are a great many smaller kinds, some of which you may find. They are very interesting, because they carry insects into a hole and bury them with their eggs, so that the young grub may have food when it is hatched.
There is a pretty little wasp, generally called the Wall-wasp (1, p. 45), which you may see in June or July biting the mortar in the garden wall or making holes in a sandy bank. It is smaller and blacker than the common wasp, and has a few bright yellow bands on its hind body. It scoops out a tunnel in the mortar and leaves the pieces sticking round the hole. Then after going in to see that all is right it comes out and flies away, coming back presently with a small green caterpillar. It carries this in and goes off for another, and so it goes on till it has brought about fifteen or twenty.
If you dig out the mortar along the wall, so as to open this tunnel, you will find at the end an egg hanging by a thread. The wasp put the egg there before she went for the first caterpillar. Between this egg and the hole the fifteen little caterpillars will be lying curled up one beyond the other. The curious thing is that they are not dead. The wasp has only stupefied them with her stings so that they do not try to escape. If you do not break into the nest she will stop the hole up with the pieces of mortar round the edge and leave it. Then when the grub has eaten the caterpillars and turned into a wasp it will bite its way out.
Then you may find some of the Sand-wasps (2, p. 45), which dig so many holes in the sandbanks on heaths, or in the lanes and gardens, wherever it is sunny and warm. One of these, called the Hairy Sand-wasp, puts Spiders in her hole for the grub to eat. She is orange coloured, with a black head and straggling legs. But she is very strong and can drag a big spider to her den.
I have not room to tell you more of these curious wasps, some of which fill their nests with beetles, others with crickets. But now you know about them you will follow any you see and watch their habits for yourself, which is much the best way.
Find an old wasps' nest and try to make a drawing of it. Notice the shape of the common wasp and compare it with any others you find. Notice particularly the difference in the thread joining the abdomen to the thorax.