By: Les Harrison
The Wasp Strikes Back
The low frequency droning is unmistakable. The casual flight pattern belies the potential agony of an encounter and the real possibility of a painful attack from multiple directions.
Wasps in north Florida, and most other locales, are known for their grumpy nature and dreadful retaliation if provoked. They are the cranks of mini aerial realm.
Provocation may be innocent or malicious, but the wasps do not care. Whether an oblivious gardener stumbles upon a nest or a spiteful adolescent uses a wasp nest for target practice with a green pine cone, as many wasps as available will strike back at the offender.
These social wasps live in colonies much like honeybees, and may have up to several thousand members. Depending on the species, they build nests in protected place above the ground or below the soil surface.
Some social wasps are omnivorous, feeding on overripe fruit and carrion. Some of these social wasps, such as yellow jackets, may scavenge for dead insects to provide food for their young.
Sporadically, some species, such as yellow jackets and hornets, will invade honeybee hives and rob honey.
Like honeybees, social wasp colonies consist of mostly female workers. Another similarity is only the females have stingers and know how to effectively apply them. Unlike honeybees, the wasp queens live only one year.
Young Queens in Hibernation
A majority of the wasp colony dies away in autumn, leaving only the young mated queens alive. During this period they leave the nest and find a suitable area to hibernate for the winter.
After emerging from hibernation in spring the young queens search for a suitable nesting site. The queen will build a basic wood fiber nest roughly the size of a hickory nut and will begin to lay eggs.
The queen raises the first several sets of wasp eggs until enough female workers can maintain the offspring without the queen’s assistance. All of the eggs produced at this time are sterile female workers who will begin to construct a more elaborate nest around their queen as they grow in number.
There are also solitary wasps which live and operate alone in the panhandle. They do not construct nests, instead depositing their eggs on host insects which serve as a sort of mobile nursery/café.
When the eggs hatch, the host becomes the first meal for the wasp larva. Mature wasp commonly feed on nectar and pollen.
Velvet Ant or The Cow Killer
There is also a native wingless wasp. It is commonly known as the Velvet Ant or the Cow Killer. While it will deliver a painful sting, as other wasp will, there are no verifiable reports of livestock lethality.
Almost every pest insect species has at least one wasp species which preys upon it or parasitizes it. This places wasps as a critically important natural control.
Some wasps are increasingly used in agricultural pest control on organic and conventional farm as they prey mostly on pest insects and have little impact on crops. Nasty dispositions aside, they are quite effective at tormenting their assigned prey.
Just be sure to give them the space to work and live, and everyone will be better for it.
To learn more about north Florida’s native wasps, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.