Gateway to the Classics: Will o' the Wasps by Margaret Warner Morley
Will o' the Wasps by  Margaret Warner Morley

Lady Wasp of the Slender Waist

W HO comes hurrying through the door, hugging her little pellet of clay so tightly under her chin? It is Lady Wasp of the slender waist. She is on her way to the corner of the shed up there under the roof. Now see, she has stopped. What is she doing? Pretty wasp in the brown dress, tell us what you are doing up there under the roof?

"Zzz-zz-zzz! " says the wasp, but she does not say it to us. "Zzzz-zzz-zzz,"  she sings like a fly in a spiderís web. Has she been caught then, and is she crying about it?

No, there is no spider web up there under the roof in the corner of the shed. She is very busy and is singing at her work. She has put down her pellet of clay and is now spreading it out flat and smooth. Presently, she has used it all up and needs more to go on with. More clay, eh? Off she goes through the open doorway. Follow her who follow can.

Theodore watched the wasp fly back and forth to the corner of the shed, always bringing in a little ball under her head, and always going away empty. Then he thought he would ask Uncle Will about it—Uncle Will, who knew everything.

"Let us see about this," said Uncle Will, and hand in hand they went to the shed and walked in and waited. Ah, yes, there she comes. "Zzzzz"—she is at work.

"Let us get up on the workbench," said Uncle Will; and so they did, and stood quite close to where the wasp was working. She seemed doubtful about it at first and flew about Uncle Willís face in a threatening manner, but he kept very still and finally she flew away. When she came back, she must have thought that Uncle Will had two heads, and she examined the two-headed monster anxiously, but as it did not move she finally flew up to her nest, flirted her wings a few times and went to work.

Soon she got so used to Uncle Will with Theodore sitting on his shoulder, for that was what the two-headed monster amounted to, that she paid no attention, but let them come quite close and watch her as she worked.

"How she jerks her wings," said Theodore, "every time she walks or stops working."

"Yes," said Uncle Will, "she is very fond of flirting her wings; perhaps she is proud of them and wants everybody to be sure and see them. I have noticed that this kind of wasp always behaves that way."

"And now she has daubed the clay all over the corner of the shed!" exclaimed Theodore.

"Yes," said Uncle Will, "she is sometimes called the mud-dauber, you know; but just wait, that is only the beginning."

They watched her come and go, bringing the little mud balls and spreading them out, all the time she was at work buzzing in a high key as though very much excited.

"She is enjoying it," said Uncle Will; "all the little living things that make nests for their children love to do it."

"Is she making a nest then?" asked Theodore.

"Yes, you will-o-the-wisp, she is making a nest or rather a cave, or a cabin, or a cradle—all out of mud."

When Uncle Willís back was tired with holding Theodore on his shoulder, they went away and came again after a while, Uncle Will standing on the bench and Theodore perched up on his shoulder as before. Thus they did day after day and watched the nest grow.

"She is making a little cave with a rounded top!" cried Theodore at last.

"Yes," said Uncle Will. "She is building a fine domed vault. Young wasps are cave-dwellers, you know, just as people used to be long ago before they learned to make houses."

"Did we live in caves?" asked Theodore, opening his eyes in astonishment.

"Yes and no," said Uncle Will, "our ancestors did a few million years before we came to it."

"Iím glad," said Theodore, "that we waited to be born until grandfather had built our dear old house with the big stone fireplaces."

"So am I," agreed Uncle Will, heartily. "Now see how fast Pelopaeus is putting on that roof, she will soon have it done."

"Why do you call her Pelopaeus, Uncle Will?"

"Stop kicking me, you young cave-dweller, and I will tell you."

"Am I kicking you?" and Theodore threw back his head and laughed. "I forgot I was on your back, and so was just kicking."

"Well, quit it and stop choking me too."

"Oh, Uncle Will, you know perfectly well I am only hugging you"; and Theodore hugged tighter than ever, while Uncle Will made believe fall over, and nearly spilled them both off the bench.

"Why did you call her Pelopaeus?" asked Theodore as soon as he could stop laughing.

"I called her Pelopaeus because that is her name," said Uncle Will, looking solemnly at Theodore. "At least it is the name of the part of the wasp family to which she belongs. Wise men named her that because they had to name her something. Pelopaeus comes from the Greek and means dark-faced."

"Why didnít they just say dark-faced then and done with it?"

"Because they were so wise, you foolish young cave-dweller. Scientific people speak in terms that everybody can understand. When you say Pelopaeus all the scientific people, whether they are French or German or Spanish or Norwegian or any other nationality, know what you mean, while if you said dark-faced, only English-speaking people would know."

"But why call her dark-faced?"

"Because you can see for yourself she is dark-faced. Some wasps are not, you know. Some have white or yellow faces. And it is by the different markings on their faces that some of them are known."

"Oh, how nice!" said Theodore, forgetting and kicking again. "How nice," he went on after they had both stopped laughing; "just like people. Some have white faces, Indians are red, and the Chinese are yellow."

"And different races have different features, just as the wasps have different facial markings—but now be quiet, for here she comes."

"She lays it on, now this way, now that," said Theodore, leaning out very close to the busy wasp, who was so used to their presence that she did not mind them at all.

"See, the top of the nest looks as if it had been made of strips of mud braided together."

"So it does," said Uncle Will, leaning still closer to look more carefully. "What a bright red nest it is!" he added.

"That is because it is made of red clay," whispered Theodore.

"Just so," said Uncle Will; "once I saw some Pelopaeus nests that were nearly white—like fine china nests, you know. And sometimes wasps make their nests of grey mud, sometimes of yellow, and sometimes of black, yes, I have seen black waspís nests, it all depends upon the kind of mud they find."

"She just loves to work," said Theodore, watching Pelopaeus.

"Yes, it is natural to want to work," answered Uncle Will. "Now this little mud-dauber is—let me see—she isnít a carpenter, what is she?"

"She must be a mason," said Theodore, remembering the man who had mended the chimney a few days before.

"She is, with her tongue for a trowel," said Uncle Will.

"And she uses mud instead of plaster," added Theodore.

"That is so, and I think she is a very clever little body to do so good a job with nothing to work with but her own little legs and jaws."

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