Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Margaret Warner Morley


"I F I thought," said Uncle Will one day, "that you had not had enough of wasps and their doings I would introduce you at once to a new family of them."

"Oh, Uncle Will o' the Wasps! if you think I have had enough of wasps you are greatly mistaken. I have not begun to have enough—so come on with the new family, if you please."

"They dig holes in the ground," said Uncle Will.

"Oh, yes!" replied Theodore, "digger wasps. I have heard you speak of them before."

"They belong, not to the true wasps, such as Vespa and Polistes, but rather to the division in which we find Pelopaeus."

"That suits me," returned Theodore. "It makes no difference at all what family they belong to, so long as they are interesting people."

"Well, come along, then, for I find them very interesting. They are solitary wasps for one thing, and the solitary wasps seem to have to exercise their wits more than the social wasps that live in colonies and so necessarily do things after a fixed pattern. Here, let us sit under this bush in the shade and watch that hole in the path."

"There she comes," whispered Theodore after a few minutes. "Why, I believe she is dragging a caterpillar!" and sure enough a black wasp came hurrying along transporting a caterpillar as long as itself.

"It must have been stung or it would squirm," said Theodore.

"Yes, no doubt it has been stung. Do you know that the caterpillar sometimes becomes chrysalid after it has been stowed away in the wasp's nest?"

"Dear me, Uncle Will, what if it hatched out into a butterfly—wouldn't that be dreadful!"

"Oh, but it never does—it goes to sleep when stung and sometimes has life enough to make its first transformation, but that is the end. I cannot go on and wake up."

"I am glad of that," said Theodore, "it seems as if things were made to come just right. See!" he suddenly exclaimed, "the wasp has left its caterpillar and gone into the hole—why didn't it take in the caterpillar?"

"Perhaps it wanted to see if there were burglars in the house first. You know a stranger sometimes takes possession of the nest while the owner is away, and such a tenant has to be cast out. Now we will see what wits our Lady Digger has"; and Uncle Will carefully removed the caterpillar from the rim of the nest where it had been left and laid it on the ground about a foot away.

"Do you think she can find it?" whispered Theodore excitedly.

"Here she comes," said Uncle Will as the wasp suddenly emerged from the nest and looked about for the caterpillar.

"My, how crazy she is!" said Theodore, squeezing Uncle Will's hand.

"No wonder, with a whole leg of mutton stolen from her pantry."

"All the food she had for her child to grow upon!" added Theodore; "don't you think we ought to give it back to her?"

"Let's wait a little. See, she is looking about on all sides, farther and farther from the nest—I shouldn't wonder—there!"

"She has found it," said Theodore with suppressed excitement. "I am so glad! She has grabbed it as though she were as pleased as could be, and is dragging it back to the nest— Why, she has left it outside again!"

"Yes, she suspects danger and has popped in to see that all is well inside—now, Madam Wasp, you have lost your pickled caterpillar again," and Uncle Will removed it as before, only further away.

Again the wasp came out and looked for the caterpillar, and again scurried about in apparent excitement until she had found it.

Several times the caterpillar was removed, and as often found and dragged back to the nest where it was left while the wasp went in to explore. At last Uncle Will and Theodore left the caterpillar undisturbed, and the wasp came out, seized it and dragged it out of sight down into its hole.

"How relieved she must be to get it in at last!" laughed Uncle Will.

"Yes, we have made her a great deal of trouble, Uncle Will; but wasn't it fun! She hunted around just like Rover when you have thrown a stick that he can't find. What is her house like, down there in the ground? Is the hole deep—could we see in? I'm going to try."

But do his best Theodore could see nothing in the dark little hole, and scurried back to his seat by Uncle Will as the wasp suddenly appeared.

Instead of flying away for another caterpillar, her ladyship began to scratch the ground about the hole.

"Why," said Theodore, eagerly watching proceedings, "she is filling the hole with dirt, I do believe."

"Keep quiet now, just watch and see," warned Uncle Will.

"I tell you, Uncle Will, she has filled it up and is now patting it all down nice and smooth—see! she has brought a dry leaf and put over it!—and now a tiny twig—why, what has become of her?" and Theodore looked around—"why, where is the nest? I can't find it."

Uncle Will laughed. "That is the trick, my fine nephew. She doesn't want anybody to find the hole. She has finished and gone."

"Gone where?"

"I don't know. Perhaps to make another nest."

"Is that the same one?" and Theodore pointed to a wasp flitting up and down the path as if looking for something.

"Perhaps so, perhaps not, but it is apparently looking for a good place to dig—maybe we can see a nest begun, as well as having seen one finished."

"Yes, she is digging with her front feet, like a dog—now she is off—why didn't she finish?"

"Perhaps she encountered a stone too big to move, perhaps she decided to find a site with a better view."

"Oh, Uncle Will, what does she care for a view, when all she does is to dig down in the ground!"

"Well, I only said perhaps, you know. See, she has started again—no, that place doesn't suit either. Madam, you appear to me to be wasting a great deal of time starting tunnels and then abandoning them."

"Let's walk along, Uncle Will, and see if we can't find a wasp digging."

"I'm sure we can," agreed Uncle Will, "for this is digging time and the wasps are very busy."

"There!" interrupted Theodore. "see that!" and sure enough there was a big yellow and brown wasp half buried and causing the dirt to fly out behind her in a fine stream of dust.

"She does seem to be at it for good," said Uncle Will, sitting down under a tree—"at work tooth and nail, so to speak."

"At work jaws and claws!" amended Theodore, thumping Uncle Will, and then sitting on his knee.

"Yes, jaws and claws it is," agreed Uncle Will; "or rather jaws and legs, for she kicks the dirt out with all the strength of her legs."

"Does she loosen it with her jaws?"

"Probably, though as she has her head buried in the ground I cannot see very well what she is doing with her jaws."

"See, she is almost out of sight—how deep does she go, Uncle Will o' the Wasps?"

"I suppose," said Uncle Will, "we shall have to dig out a nest one of these days to satisfy your curiosity."

"But now," said Theodore, "since we have lost that nest, and may not find another right away, can't you tell me, and make some pictures?"

"Oh, yes, if that is what you want. You see the wasp digs straight down only an inch or two, then turns the direction of the tunnel—so, and goes on for a distance, so—"

"Why does she bend the tunnel, Uncle Will?"

"Perhaps to keep the room at the bottom from filling up with dirt, for you see the tunnel ends in a little room where she stores her provisions and lays her eggs."

"One egg in each nest?"

"Yes, just one—to keep her greedy babies out of temptation, you know."

"And the baby eats its caterpillar and moults and changes into a pupa, and finally comes out a wasp and has to make its way out through the tunnel and gnaw open the doorway," finished Theodore jumping up and running up and down the path, and then sitting down again.

"I think it was funny the way that wasp hunted about and found the caterpillar every time!"

"Yes, the solitary wasps are knowing people. I once saw a big one close the opening to its nest with a stone over the mouth when it left to get another caterpillar."

"So nobody could get in?"

"Yes, and perhaps so the opening would not so readily be seen. You know there are always enemies lying in wait to enter the nest. These enemies are small insects that, too lazy to make and provision their own nests, wait until the wasp has hers ready, when one of the little rascals slips in and lays her own egg, when it easily devours the rightful occupant along with the food stored away for the baby wasp's use."

"Oh, my! what lovely creatures!" said Theodore, sarcastically.

"Yes, aren't they lovely! But you see their evil ways have served to develop the wits of the wasp; probably if it had not been for these enemies her ladyship would have been much more stupid than she is today."

"Was it fear of enemies that made the little black wasp look into her nest every time before taking in the caterpillar?"

"Probably it was."

"Tell more about the wasp that put the stone over its nest," Uncle Will.

"Well, that is the gist of the story. She put the stone in the opening to the nest, and when she came back she took out the stone and went in, but she always replaced it before leaving, until she had fully provisioned the nest and filled the opening with dirt."

"That was like people, Uncle Will," said Theodore. Then after a pause he asked, "How many caterpillars do they catch?"

"I'm sure I don't know, only you may be sure they take in just enough, and not one too many. But not all the miner wasps use caterpillars you know."


"Sometimes. What would you think of a wasp who chose the gentle tarantula for her prey?"

"The tarantula? Why, Uncle Will, the tarantula is that big, hairy spider that lives in the hot south, and makes a nest with a cover that has a hinge that lifts up and down. How could any wasp catch such a monstrous spider as that?"

"It would certainly need to be a strong, fierce insect; and such it is. Yes, there is a wasp that actually tackles the savage tarantula and stings it until it is paralyzed, unless, of course, the tarantula proves the better fighter—which sometimes happens—when the dinner party is reversed and the tarantula dines on wasp."

"It must be something of a fight between them, Uncle Will."

"I should think so; but our wasps here at home often tackle insects bigger than themselves, although none so fierce, of course, as the tarantula. Now there is a wasp that selects cicadas—you know, what we call 'locusts,' that spring their rattles in the summer—those big horny fellows that leave their pupa shells about on the bushes and tree trunks."

"Yes, I know," said Theodore; "how can they carry them?"

"Sometimes they drag them, and sometimes they climb up a tree and fly from there. If the nest is not too far from the tree that is an easy way to get to it. And some wasps have a taste for grasshoppers. Indeed, a good many kinds of insects fall a prey first and last to these Amazons with poisoned darts."

"Amazons were big, strong ladies who lived long ago and went to battle with helmets on their heads," said Theodore. "And these are big, strong mother wasps that go hunting to feed their children. Don't they ever hatch into workers?"

"I have never heard that they did. You see, they have no use for workers—they are too independent. But there are drones; the eggs hatch into queens and drones."

"Then each wasp must make a good many nests. What a lot of trouble to dig a hole for each egg!"

"Oh, they love to dig; they have big strong legs on purpose, with stiff hairs on them to sweep up with—"

"Brooms instead of pollen baskets," laughed Theodore.

"Exactly so. The eggs stay in the ground all winter, and in the spring the drones and queens hatch out. They mate and the drones die; but the queens live to make nests and catch insects and lay eggs and suck nectar from the flowers and enjoy the hot sun all through the summer."

"And sometimes sting people," added Theodore.

"Not often, my wise philosopher. The solitary wasp, remember, is a queen, and no queen is rash about using her sting as you well know. Of course she will use it if she thinks she has to; but she does not go about looking for trouble."