By: Marlene Affeld
My friend Starr is terrified of wasps and justifiably so. When stung she has had horrific reactions that included intense pain, shallow breathing, rapid and massive swelling of the site, fever, headache, nausea and dizziness. Not a pleasant experience. Wary of wasps, we are careful when we grab a bush or climb the creek bank. As wasps buzz and dart, a backyard barbecue can be an intimidating event.
There are over 20 varieties of wasps in the families Sphecidae and Vespidae that inhabit Montana. Some make their nests high in the trees, or under eaves; others prefer to be closer to the ground and will make their nest in an exposed root mass, under overhanging branches and in brush or ground cover. Still other swarms will nest in soil in pre-existing cavities such as a ground squirrel’s domain or a marmot burrow. Some years they seem to be everywhere. Scary!
There are many groups of aggressive insects that are commonly lumped together as “wasps”. These unsavory insects include paper wasps, mud daubers, yellow-jackets and hornets. Wasps can be distinguished from bees by their slim torso, bees are thick-waisted. All wasps will defend their nests, however; hornets and yellow-jackets are the most aggressive and most likely to sting. Yellow-jacket behavior is especially nasty in late summer and early fall when the colony is declining.
Adult wasps are usually predaceous and use most of their prey to provision the nests containing their offspring. As adults, wasps use nectar and pollen for food and they contribute to the ecosystem by pollinating as a result of their feeding. Some wasps visit wildflowers for nectar and provision their nests with spiders. Yuck!
You can imagine our trepidation when Starr and I, out walking the woods, stumbled upon a wasp nest as big as a volleyball. Knee high, entwined in a clump of brush, we were fortunate we did not bump into it as any disturbance around a nest can trigger a mass attack.
Beautiful in its natural perfection, we couldn’t resist cautiously taking a few photos. Moist with the morning dew, the nest was a marvel of engineering and a tribute to Mother Nature's efficiency.
A couple of days later, we shared the story of our encounter with friends, Ken and Linda. I have a huge nest that I harvested, fumigated and preserved and that now decorates my cabin. Linda wanted to view the nest we found and harvest it for preservation.
When considering wasp control, we bear in mind that wasps are also beneficial, killing many noxious pests to feed their young. The colony will only remain active for one summer when the queens fly away to begin colonies of their own. The wasps that remain behind die at the end of the summer and the nest is not used again.
We returned to the area where we photographed the nest and searched and searched but could not find it. The wasp nest had disappeared. Sometime later we found fresh bear scat, tracks and the remnants of the nest. The bear had feasted on pure protein. In nature everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted. So much for the wasps!