European Paper Wasps Strike Again

2012 February 15

On July 30, 2011, I decided to take down our old, unused satellite dish[1]. So I loosened the mounting bolts on the support bracket, and turned it a bit on the post to loosen it up, and it creaked and vibrated. At which point I heard “bbzzzzZZZZZ” and got popped a couple of times on the arm and back by some very irate wasps that were moving too fast to really see properly. So I made an orderly retreat[2], went in and got my sting-proof shirt[3], and then loosened up the bolts more and finished the job. And then, when I looked inside the LNB[4] support on the satellite dish, this is what I found there:

Ah, the European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula[5], my old nemesis. I got stung the first time I found a nest of these, too. They are quite the hazard when doing little yard-improvement projects that involve demolition, because they like to build their nests inside pipes, under siding, in little outbuildings, inside eaves, and in other protected spots where you can’t see them until you start dismantling the thing they are hiding in.

European paper wasps look a lot like yellowjackets, but they are immediately identifiable by their orange antennae (yellowjackets have black antennae).

They are pretty defensive, more so than the native Northern Paper Wasps, but no worse than most of the various yellowjacket species. They do tend to glower at you when you approach the nest, though.

Anyway, as you might guess, European Paper Wasps are an invasive species, that have actually only been here in Upper Michigan for a decade or less. They were first reported in Boston in 1978, and have obviously been spreading through North America pretty quickly to have gotten here already. For comparison, Gypsy Moths (which also just arrived locally within the last decade) took over 100 years to cover the same distance.

When I found that first nest in 2007, I thought that they were probably going to displace our Northern Paper Wasps, because that year it seemed like all of the paper wasp nests that I was finding were the European species. But the next year, and the next, and the next, they seemed to have disappeared, with only the native wasps being evident. This one that I found in 2011 was the first evidence I’ve seen in four years that the European Paper Wasps hadn’t died out again in this area.

[1] We used to have a subscription to DISH Network, but some years ago we decided that there wasn’t anything worth watching on it at the service tier that we were willing to pay for, so we dropped it and subscribed to Netflix instead. So the 18-inch satellite dish has just been hanging around doing nothing for some time. And then, this summer, I got the bright idea of using it as a focusing parabola for a microphone, so that I could use it to record insect sounds from a distance. I figure that if I put a microphone where the LNB[4] used to be, it should focus high-frequency sound every bit as well as it used to focus radio signals from a geosynchronous satellite. I’m still fooling around with the recorder and microphone setups to go with it, but I should be able to see if it actually works this spring.

[2] One thing about keeping bees, it makes one a lot more relaxed about getting stung. These days, when unexpected stinging insects come after me, I just cover my eyes and walk away, and don’t sweat soaking up a couple of stings in the process. Not that I like it, mind you, but it’s nothing to freak out over anymore.

[3] For working with testy bees, I use a Bug Baffler shirt instead of the traditional bee-veil-and-white-coveralls that most beekeepers use. I like the bug baffler a lot because the mesh is significantly cooler than coveralls would be, the bees have yet to succeed in stinging me through it, and the mesh is also fine enough to keep out blackflies and mosquitos (traditional wire-mesh beekeeping veils have a larger mesh that the blackflies just saunter right through). It’s great to have whenever I have any stinging or biting insects to deal with. I also have the bug baffler pants, but I don’t need those as often.

[4] The LNB is the Low-Noise Block-Downconverter, the device on the satellite dish that actually receives the signal and sends it down the cable to your converter box.

[5] Bug Guide gives the name as Polistes dominula (Christ), where the name in parentheses at the end is the name of the person who first described the species. At first, when I saw this, I wondered, “What, was this wasp described in the New Testament, and so they listed Jesus Christ as the discoverer? Or is that just an indication of what a person is likely to say when they blunder into a nest of these angry ladies?” But no, it turns out that the species was merely described by Johann Ludwig Christ. Darn. Still, if one feels the need to say something emphatic as the wasps buzz around one’s head, but don’t want to be perceived as swearing, then yelling “Johann Christ!” as one runs off flailing and swatting would probably be pretty satisfactory and oddly appropriate.

10 Responses
  1. Lon permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Oooh, I may have to consider a bug baffler shirt. Especially if another skunk starts harassing the hives – it made the girls were REALLY cranky. (we’re pretty sure it was the bees, not the dogs, that killed the skunk in the end…)

  2. February 15, 2012

    The only thing I’d recommend with the bug baffler shirt, is to sew a cheap hat inside of the hood portion to keep the mesh oriented properly with your head. Otherwise, it tends to shift around on your head in an annoying fashion. It is still a very worthwhile piece of clothing, though.

  3. Carole permalink
    February 15, 2012

    In doing a little investigating to find the range of the wasp I found the following information:

    European paper wasp, Polistes dominula (Christ), has colonized much of Colorado during the past decade and has emerged as a dominant species of nuisance wasp. It is impacting many types of prey species, particularly larval Lepidoptera. However, in western Colorado it is also a common pest in fruit orchards and can be very damaging to ripening grapes, Vitis vinifera L.; sweet cherries, Prunus avium (L.) L.; and other thin-fleshed stone fruits. This latter habit is unusual for a Polistes species.

    Thanks for the good information.

  4. February 16, 2012

    Carole: Your comment about these wasps damaging fruit reminds me of the beginning of the P. G. Wodehouse story “Monkey Business”, which takes place in England (where the dominant wasps are probably Polistes dominulus):

    A Tankard of Stout had just squashed a wasp as it crawled on the arm of Miss Postlethwaite, our popular barmaid, and the conversation in the bar-parlor of the Anglers’ Rest had turned to the subject of physical courage.

    The Tankard himself was inclined to make light of the whole affair, urging modestly that his profession, that of a fruit farmer, gave him perhaps a certain advantage over his fellow men when it came to dealing with wasps.

    “Why, sometimes in the picking season,” said the Tankard, “I’ve had as many as six standing on each individual plum, rolling their eyes at me and daring me to come on.”

    Mr. Mulliner looked up from his hot Scotch and Lemon.

    “Suppose they had been gorillas?” he said.

    The Tankard considered this.

    “There wouldn’t be room,” he argued, “not on an ordinary-sized plum.”

  5. February 18, 2012

    Glorious photos of some very attractive and expressive, if inhospitable, insects.

    As for the dish being used to record sounds, do you have a way to test its absorption / reflection spectrum? A white noise generator at a distance ought to do the trick.

  6. Carole permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Talk about being captured by an opening line. I’ll be putting Monkey Business on my reading list. Thanks!

  7. February 20, 2012

    KT: good point. I suppose, lacking anything better, I could use a window fan as a broad-spectrum noise generator, and use Audacity to check the resulting waveforms.

    Carole: Probably the easiest place to find that story is in the collection “A Wodehouse Bestiary”.

  8. February 20, 2012

    Dig this. Maybe you can find one on Craig’s list for next to nothing.

  9. jasonalonzo permalink
    February 22, 2012

    They can certainly contaminate any devices with their hives. Fortunately, they can be controlled by pesticide means such as used in Bedbugs Washington DC.

  10. February 25, 2012

    Wasps are how I found this blog in the first place, so I have a–not warm, but not icy, either–spot in my heart for them.

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