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The paper wasp – both good and bad

By Ralph E. Mitchell

You may only have one opinion about paper wasps – bad!  This opinion may have formed during a stinging encounter with one or more paper wasps after an accidental run-in.  However, while paper wasps may need to be managed from time to time, they are considered beneficial and good to have around – from a safe distance that is!

There are a number of different paper wasp species under the genus  Polistes and we have several.  But all paper wasp species in our area, by their very name, make their nests out of paper.  This paper is fabricated by the wasp chewing wood tissue and mixing it with its saliva.  I have actually witnessed a paper wasp land on an old post and carefully chew off a small bit of wood.  The resulting paper pulp is then applied in thin layers to build the six-sided cells that make up the small, flat nest.  In each cell, the queens lays an egg.  The resulting larvae is tended by workers which feed and rear the larva to the pupal stage.  Adults then emerge from the pupae as all-female , non-reproductive workers ready to take on the role of building new cells, collecting water, nectar, and prey such as caterpillars and beetle larvae.  Interestingly enough, if a queen dies, she can be replaced by one of these subordinate workers.  This replacement develops functioning ovaries in about a month.

Paper wasps do love to nest in proximity to homes – often under eaves, or in places where they may frequently meet passersby resulting in potential human/wasp interactions.  Wasps have the ability to sting repeatedly to defend the nest.  If paper wasps are an imminent threat, or if there are allergic individuals in the home, control can include any of the aerosol insecticides labeled for wasps.  Best results will occur when the insecticide is applied in the evening when all the wasps are back on the nest and relatively calm.  Many of these aerosol sprays can shoot a narrow targeted stream of pesticide directly at the nest.  Carefully make an application and then withdraw.  As with any pesticide you use, please read the label, as the label is the law.  Paper wasps will protect their nests, but otherwise will go about their business and stinging events are often accidental.  But unless they are a problem, it may be best just to leave them alone.  Paper wasps have their benefits which include pest control and pollination.

Paper wasps need a constant supply of food for themselves and their growing young.  Caterpillars are high on their list of food items and I have seen a worker catch, dispatch, and carry off their prey on more than one occasion.  Their mandibles are formidable as they simply bite the caterpillar in half.  Now of course not all caterpillars are pests.  However, within any predator/prey relationship, most populations can afford to be thinned out.  In addition to meat-eaters, paper wasps are also going to forage for nectar where pollination among various plants can take place.

So like many organisms that can sting or bite, common sense precautions are always in order.  Otherwise, paper wasps are just part of natural world.  For more information on all types of stinging or venomous insects, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/files/2018/01/Plant-Clinics-Schedule.pdf .

Resources:
Paulus, L. & Lucky, A. (2015) Paper Wasp, Red Wasp.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
P.G. Koehler and J. L. Castner (2018) Wasps and Bees.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS

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