Northern Paper Wasp Nest and Male

2010 December 4

And now, for our 200th installment, we visit these ladies that we’ve seen before. They are Northern Paper Wasps, Polistes fuscatus. But this time, there was a nest built in the eaves of our house that was in a very convenient spot for photographing. So, let’s have a look at the nest:

It actually started building with just one wasp around early June, but by July it had gotten fairly substantial. There were still only a couple of adult wasps around it, but there were a significant number of eggs and grubs (and, in the back, even one emerging adult. Which appeared to be male. More on that later).

We can see all ages of eggs and grubs in the exposed cells. The ones that are capped over are the ones that are pupating, they are capped because the adults no longer need to feed them. The grubs, however, still need to be fed, and for paper wasps they normally get fed bits of caterpillars that the adults catch for them.

Over the course of the summer, the nest slowly grew, as did the numbers of adults. By September, there were a fair number hanging around at all times:

By this time, though, the cells in the nest were pretty much empty. By late in the season, the wasps no longer have any need to lay eggs, because they wouldn’t have time to reach adulthood before winter anyway. At this point, they are just defending the last few pupae from predators until they emerge. And, the youngest of them (who are going to be next year’s new nest queens) are going off to mate with handsome fellows like this one:


This male was probably from the same nest as was photographed, although he may have come from a nearby nest to visit with the lovely young ladies under our eaves. He was hanging out on the outside of one of our windows when Sam and I caught him in a jar. At this point you may ask, “How can you be so sure he was a male?” Well, first of all, he had the curly antenna tips and the white face characteristic of male Northern Paper Wasps.

Compare with the face of one of his (probably) sisters, which is dark, and the antennae tips only curved and not tightly curled:

Of course, the real proof he was male, was that when I was handling him, he did the whole jabbing-at-me-with-his-abdomen thing that would normally have lead to a painful sting, except for the fundamental problem that, as a male he doesn’t have a stinger.

So, as I am writing this, it is now the first week in October[1], and the nest is empty. The females have mated and are going around looking for a good place to hibernate through the winter (which is why they are likely to come into houses in October), the males are presumably dying off, and it’s “so long” to the paper wasps until next spring.

[1] Yes, I am writing with quite a bit of lead time these days, as you might guess from the fact that this didn’t actually post until December. The cat has been waking me up at 4:30 every morning, so rather than trying to get back to sleep, I’ve just been getting up early and building up a good-sized post queue. At this rate, I’ll have all the postings through Spring queued up before winter even starts. Which is OK, seeing as how I’m unlikely to be able to get much in the way of new photographs until around April anyway.

13 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    December 4, 2010

    Congratulations on your 200th post, a fine one.
    Here in North Florida, I noticed the last of our wasp nests was abandoned this week. They survived with their nest in the sliding door of my greenhouse this summer. It regularly reached temperatures well over 100 degrees. I noticed the wasps were much smaller than usual. Either a paper wasp I’m not familiar with or a result of the high heat.

  2. December 4, 2010

    Come on, Tim, there’s all sorts of winter insects you could be writing about this time of year: the northern ice weevil, hairy frost mites who colonize smooth glassy surfaces, snow termites who germinate underneath drifts and tunnel out on sunny days when the temps rise above 25º.

  3. December 4, 2010

    Okay, I meant “there are,” not “there’s.” {blushes}

  4. December 5, 2010

    Carole: Sometimes I consider all the things that get seriously set back by our winters around here, and I think that maybe winter isn’t so bad. Especially when I see things like this giant multi-year wasp nest filling the interior of an abandoned car.

    Anne: You’re right, there actually are a fair number of winter insects (I’ve already run snow flies and several kinds of under-snow spiders, and I really need to get pictures of snow fleas one of these days), but the ones in spring, summer, and fall are certainly a lot more numerous (and generally much larger). Of course, there are always the pets to photograph (two adult tarantulas, four tarantula spiderlings, and the wingless fruit flies we just got to feed to the spiderlings). It’s just that I got so many pictures over the summer that going out of my way to get more in the winter isn’t really necessary.

  5. December 5, 2010

    Happy 200th, Tim! It’s been very cool to see you grow and evolve the site. I’m glad to know it’s still strong.

    As for this post – nice work. I love the shot of the nest with the eggs and grubs and emerging wasp. I expect this is a very rare shot to get, since it requires the right combo of timing, view and opportunity. Very cool.

    …and how did you get so close to the wasps? Didn’t your presence agitate them? Or were you wearing Rosie’s Halloween costume as camouflage?

  6. December 5, 2010

    Happy 200th to my favorite blogger!

    “The cat has been waking me up at 4:30 every morning, so rather than trying to get back to sleep, I’ve just been getting up early and building up a good-sized post queue.”

    LOL! We have a lot in common. 🙂

  7. Sam Pace permalink
    December 5, 2010

    What artists! Absolutely gorgeous nest!

  8. December 6, 2010

    Andy: As it turns out, Northern Paper Wasps are pretty darned mellow. As long as they or their nest aren’t being directly molested, they’re very live-and-let-live. I was only about six inches from the nest, and they didn’t seem to care very much. European Paper Wasps, Yellow Jackets, and Bald-Faced Hornets, on the other hand, are a different story – if you get within about a foot of the nest they are likely to pop you.

    The last time I got stung by a Northern Paper Wasp, it had accidentally flown up my pantleg while I was bicycling. Which is kind of a special case.

  9. December 6, 2010


    The worst thing about the cat is, he doesn’t even *want* anything from me when he wakes me up. I think he’s just offended by the idea that other people might be sleeping while he’s awake.

  10. December 6, 2010

    Not so, Tim. He wants you. Playing with you or just being with you while you’re awake makes him happy.


  11. Della3 permalink
    January 23, 2011

    Tim, I can tell you that a hornet will stab you even if you are 20 feet away from the nest and just watching them fly to and from their home. A guard will look you straight in the eyes, and then make a beeline for you (fun choice of words). I got a hard hit in the forhead that day. The impact was almost as bruising as the sting itself! All of my interactions with them gave me the impression that they are quite intelligent for their size.

    P.S., I’ve never really tried to learn the exact species of the insects. They had a large papery nest under a slab of concrete. At the opening was a rather interesting, non-celled batch of loose-leaf, grey, irregular edged paper. The opening was large and the curved “leaves” of paper were up to 6 inches in diameter. The nest itself was underground and housed many hundreds of individuals. They were taking over my garden, and I was stung so many times I had to get rid of them. A few years later I had the concrete slab removed and was dissappointed that I could not find any signs of the former nest.

  12. Wlj-MN permalink
    November 1, 2012

    Thanks for the info!

    I have been searching the web for photos and a good description of what a male and female paper wasp look like.

    I am probably one of the few people that don’t hate paper wasps, in fact, I am trying to use them in my East greenhouse to pollinate my huge avocado trees (All are 9+ feet tall). I need a couple of bees to visit each of the thousand flowers in February/March that pop out on those trees in that building.
    Day one — flowers are female and are sloppy-wet with nectar – day two the flowers are male and have almost no pollen (a couple of grans — talk about stingy). The trick is to catch the flowers when they are opening. Only an insect has the time and ability to do this. Last year I lost the entire crop of fruit despite the usual tiny brush/blowing wind techniques — no insects in Minnesota in these months.

    To fix the problem, I have made a project of ‘socializing’ with seven wasps (which I now know 3 are female) in hopes that when the trees bloom (and they get hungry) they will start visiting the flowers. Until then, I gave them a nest box (wren house, with an open front) and feed them honey-water by hand. No one has tried to bite (or sting) the hand that is feeding them (….yet). I am cautious but not phobic.

    In case you are wondering why I am not using honeybees, February is not a month that ANY bee is normally active in Minnesota, and secondly — I don’t want 5000 bees in my East greenhouse which is what I have been told is necessary for a healthy colony.

    I will settle for a dozen working wasps any day (if it works?!).

    Thanks for the info once again

  13. November 2, 2012

    Wasps in the greenhouse for pollination certainly is worth a shot. They might also be effective for keeping down pest insects, as they really like to eat caterpillars.

    I’ve also heard of greenhouses using bumble bees for pollination. They have smaller colonies than honeybees (only around a hundred individuals), and are less inclined to beat themselves to death at windows.

    If neither of those work out, you might be able to do something useful with “drone flies”. These are bee-mimic flies that are also good pollinators, and that can be raised in decomposing organic matter. They have the advantage that you can get their larvae pretty easily from most bait shops in the winter – they are sold as “rat-tailed maggots” or “mousies” for ice fishing. And they don’t sting!

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