Wenatchee Naturalist Stories Chapter 2

Long-time Manson resident, Nicki Anderson, made the long drive back and forth to Wenatchee for 12 weeks to participate in the fall Wenatchee Naturalist course.  She has long been an observer of the animals and birds that use the habitats that surround their home on Lake Chelan.  Nicki visited the newly developed Beebee Springs Wildlife Area along the Columbia River to do her weekly field journal observations, and was disappointed at the lack of bird life this fall. However, her eye did catch some insect drama.  I wish you could have heard her read aloud this clever, humorous, and scientifically correct narrative.

Nicki Anderson

Nicki Anderson

I am Nicki Anderson, a student in Susan Ballinger’s excellent Naturalist Course. At our last class session her students had to give a short demonstration of their chosen natural sites. If 15 students give a scientific report, things can get pretty technical and serious at times. I wanted to offer “comic relief” with my report and after doing research about the wasps I encountered on my site, this is what I came up with:

 

BeeBee Spring Wildlife Area

BeeBee Spring Wildlife Area

This is my site, an inlet off the Columbia River close to BeeBee Bridge and as you can see, it is pretty void of birds. One day as I walked around looking for birds I noticed dozens of wasps, – order hymenoptera, –  zigzagging around me, coming out of their underground nests. They belong to the subgroup of social wasps, we know them as Yellow-Jackets. They are meat-eaters, they consume only small amounts of nectar from flowers and therefore do not play a big role in pollinating, their benefit to us is that they eat a lot of caterpillars, aphids etc. In late Summer they number around 5000 per colony.

Yellow-jacket nest hole

Yellow-jacket nest hole

Trying to take their picture was useless, they just zigged and zagged but then, lo and behold!, one very large wasp landed on a mullein leaf and I crawled after it into the brambles, camera in hand to get its picture – using the old instamatic method: point and shoot! –  when, lo and behold again! another, much smaller wasp, landed on the leaf and crawled on top of my big wasp, obviously a queen and drone in pursuit of colony enlargement. The drone flipped the pointed end of his abdomen under the queen’s and they were connected! Then he did a strange thing: he flipped himself backwards and hung in midair and had to come up with a maneuver so he wouldn’t drop into the abyss and get disconnected from his queen – that in the scientific language would be called a coitus interruptus and would not be beneficial for the population of the wasps! So he flapped his wings like crazy, stayed connected, and the colony’s future population was assured.

After mating, the drones die quickly and so do any queens unlucky enough not to get fertilized – bad breath? low sex appeal? who knows! The rest of those 5000 wasps die at the beginning of winter, not so much because they freeze to death but rather they starve to death. Wasps are meat-eaters, and meat spoils, so they do not store it, so they all starve. Only the fertilized queens – maybe bigger bodies have bigger brains? – survive by finding a crevice in a tree or house-wall, warm enough to hibernate through the winter.

mating Yellow-jackets

mating Yellow-jackets

In Spring the queen emerges and builds a small nest underground, creates a few cells by chewing wood and/or paper, mixing it with her saliva to form a kind of cement to build them with. She lays female worker wasp eggs in the cells and takes care of those eggs, pupae and larvae until they emerge, and then in turn take care of her. They enlarge the nest, build more cells and they take care of the eggs etc. etc. The queen continues laying eggs all Spring and Summer, female worker eggs, male drone eggs and new queen eggs, then she dies. And in Fall all this starts anew again.

Now, let’s imagine that one of the new queens is a feisty one, one that has a zest for more spice in her life and in fall when the drones zig zag around to fertilize their queens she gets bored if one takes too long in doing so! So, to speed things up she lethally bites him – poor drone, he would have died anyhow! He dies and disconnects from her – and that, in the scientific language, is known as coitus terminus – and roughly translated – very roughly translated! – it means: “Buzz off! I’ve got a headache!”

 

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