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

The Yellow Jackets

"W HAT is the difference between a hornet and a yellow jacket?" Theodore wanted to know one day, and Uncle Will replied:

"Well, there isn't much difference and then again there is. The yellow jacket is smaller, and where the hornet dresses in white, the yellow jacket prinks itself out in yellow. It is mainly a matter of color with thee two families—each has its own badge, so to speak. The color and the faces—there is quite a difference in the faces, you know."

"No, I don't know," said Theodore. "Tell me about it, please."

"Here," said Uncle Will, drawing a dead and dried hornet from his pocket; "now get the glass and look. See? The eyes are not big and bulging like the eyes of Pelopaeus. They lie flatter on the sides of the head, and they are cut into a half-moon shape. The wasp wears a sort of helmet on its brow, like his Majesty's elephants, you know, and the shape of this helmet differs in the different species of Vespa. There are several species of yellow jackets, some tiny fellows, and you know them by their fronts. But don't ask me to tell you which is which, for I am not well enough acquainted with them," Uncle Will quickly added, as Theodore tried to interrupt him.

Theodore laughed. "Well, I was just going to ask you to tell me how I could know the different kinds by their faces."

"I know you were, and so I spoke in time. Now ask me something I can answer."

"Are they all called Vespa?" Theodore promptly inquired.

"Yes, the hornets and yellow jackets are all called Vespa. The big white hornet is Vespa Maculata, as you know. The yellow jackets have different Vespa names. We call them all the social wasps, because they live together in colonies, like bees, instead of each for herself, like Pelopaeus."

"They don't look a bit like Pelopaeus, the lady of the slender waist."

"No, they are not so elegant in shape, but they doubtless pride themselves on their strength and their bright colors—and then their wings are folded lengthwise like little fans, which Pelopaeus' wings are not."

"Oh, yes, I remember! Let me see that," said Theodore.

Uncle Will took another hornet out of his pocket, one freshly killed, with its wings still soft enough to spread out.

"It seems to me you are well supplied with wasps this morning, Mr. Uncle Will o' the Wasps," said Theodore, giving him a punch on the chest out of pure love.

"Yes, I am," said Uncle Will, "and you can see for yourself they are needed. Now for this matter of the wings;" and he spread out a wing carefully with the help of a pin. "There," he said, "isn't it just as I said?"

"I should say it is," declared Theodore. "How cunning! But a fan folds up many times, and this wing folds only once."

"True enough," said Uncle Will. "This is a wasp fan, you see, and has only two slats, but it needs no more—see how very thin and flat it is when it is folded up—it is more slender even than the wings of Pelopaeus, and those, you remember, we thought were very small indeed."

"Yes, they seemed too small to fly with, and if this heavy wasp had such slender wings I don't believe she could  fly."

"No, I don't think they could carry her weight, so she solves the problem by having them wide enough to fly with, and by folding them away she makes them small enough to walk comfortably about the narrow passages of her house. You know wide wings would be in the way in the nest, but these of hers can be folded down are mere until they along each side of her back."

"Has she four wings like the bees, and are there two on either side hooked together?"

"Yes, yes," said Uncle Will, laughing; "the wings are made just about the same in all the bees and wasps."

"Here are some cells with the caps still on," said Theodore, looking closely at the lower comb of cells.

"Sure enough," said Uncle Will; "we must see about that."

"How white the caps look!" said Theodore.

"Yes; they are not made of paper, you know, but of nice white silk out of the grub's mouth." "Let us open one," said Theodore eagerly.

"Do it we will," replied Uncle Will, carefully cutting off a cap with his sharp knife.

"There is something inside," whispered Theodore.

"Something there is," said Uncle Will, picking it out with the point of his knife; "there!"

"Oh dear!" cried Theodore, "it is all withered up and good for nothing."

"Good for nothing it is," agreed Uncle Will, poking it a little. "Perhaps it got sealed up too late in the season and the cold caught it. Perhaps it was sick and the doctor did not get there in time."

"Oh, Uncle Will, it couldn't send for the doctor, it was all sealed up!"

"So it was! Excuse me, nephew mine, excuse me;" and Uncle Will looked soberly at Theodore, who looked soberly back again, and then they both burst out laughing.

Next day the sun shone brightly and dried the ground that had been soaked by the rain of the day before.

"Come," said Uncle Will, "and I will introduce you to Vespa what-is-her-name, in other words to Lady Yellow Jacket."

You may be sure Theodore dropped what he was doing and started off at once with Uncle Will.

"There," said Uncle Will, pointing to a little nest about as big as a sugar-bowl, hanging under the eaves of the chicken house.

"Why!" exclaimed Theodore, "that looks just like the white-faced hornet's nest."

"But you see who is going into it?"

Sure enough, a fine yellow jacket alighted at the opening of the nest and crawled in.

"It is the lady of the house," said Uncle Will. "Madam Yellow Jacket loves to place her home under the shelter of the eaves, and one less often finds her nest in trees, though she is sometimes driven to building there."

"Is the yellow jacket's nest the same inside as the hornet's?"

"Just about the same, only the cells are not quite so large."

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