European Paper Wasp Found Dead in the Snow

2013 December 4

On March 20, 2013, it had been pretty cold, and the snow was still several feet deep. But, the sun was shining, and so insects hibernating in spots that were in direct sunlight got above freezing. And some of them foolishly ventured out of their hidey-holes – to their doom. Like this unfortunate wasp that I found dead in the snow beside a sidewalk at work.

She’s pretty clearly a European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula, a species I have photographed twice before. I can tell because of her orange antennae, which are unusual among wasps (other wasps have mostly black antennae).

I kind of suspect that part of the reason I found her was that these wasps are not native to the area, and haven’t fully adapted to our charming climate[1]. Where the native insects were saying to themselves, “Oh no, you’re not fooling me. Not this time”, and stayed put, this one obviously thought, “Hey, it’s warm! Better get moving and get ahead of the competition!”

And she promptly froze to death.

This could be why the European Paper Wasps do not seem to have displaced the native wasps around here, even though they often become the dominant wasps in other parts of the country. When we get a couple of mild winters in a row, they become very numerous, but then we get a hard winter that knocks them back so that the natives can re-fill the niche.

[1] The winter of 2012-13 was a particularly rough one for the insects around here[2]. We went all the way to the middle of April without a significant thaw (our daughters participated in an easter-egg hunt in about 3 feet of snow that year), and there was no significant snow-free ground until the first week in May. And then there was a final little gift of a couple of inches of snowfall on May 11-12. Insects did not start appearing in any quantity until about May 20, and even then the numbers were way down compared to a normal year.

[2] Well, OK, it was a rough one for everybody. While April usually isn’t particularly warm, at least most of the snow is normally gone by then. This past year, though, it just kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing. People were getting pretty depressed by the whole thing, and Sam was convinced that the next Ice Age was starting. The local paper was running polls with titles like “What are you planning to do when (or if) it ever stops snowing?”, and “If it were to snow all year, would you move somewhere else?” (the surprising thing on that second one, is that a full 30% of respondents said “No”!)

3 Responses
  1. Katbird permalink
    December 4, 2013

    Thanks for the ID tip on the antennae- it’s hard to find identification on the many yellow-jackets we have in our area. She is rather attractive when you can see her up close without the fight or flight response (me, not her).

  2. December 6, 2013

    On the adaptation part – that would suggest that the natives have developer an internal timer that is initiated by thaw, but must run to completion before they act upon it.

  3. December 6, 2013

    “developed” not “developer.” Argh.

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