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Blue Mud Dauber Wasps Building Nests

9-8-17 blue mud wasp 049A4450

Yesterday’s Mystery Photo showed evidence of a Blue Mud Dauber Wasp (Chalybion californicum) scraping the mud with its mandibles as well as the resulting ball of mud it had formed to use as building material for its nest.  You can get a hint in this photograph of the iridescent blue wings that give this wasp its common name.

Mud dauber is a common name for solitary wasps that make individual nests for their eggs/brood with mud. There are many species of mud daubers, but most are between one and one-and-a-half inches long, black or metallic blue, and typically have a narrowing, or “thread-waist,” between their thorax and abdomen.

Most species of mud daubers, after making a small (1/4” diameter) tube nest out of mud or refurbishing an old nest, leave to forage for spiders. Once a spider has been located, the wasp stings and paralyzes it, but does not kill it (so as to prolong decomposition), carries it back to its nest, and repeats this process over and over until the nest is stuffed with living prey. The wasp then lays an egg in this mass of spiders and seals the nest with mud. The egg hatches and the wasp larva consumes the spiders as it grows. After pupating in the fall, the adult wasp emerges in the spring, mates and the cycle continues.

The reason that the ball of mud that the Blue Mud Dauber had formed was not taken back to the nest site as building material appears to be a small rootlet which anchors the ball to the ground, preventing the wasp from removing it.


Thread-waisted Wasps Provisioning Nests

8-21-17 thread-waisted wasp by Mardie FullSizeRender (002)

There are over 1,000 North American species of solitary hunting wasps. All of them prey on arthropods, which the female stings and paralyzes (but doesn’t kill so that they don’t begin to decompose immediately). Most solitary wasps specialize on a single type of prey, and many build highly characteristic burrow nests. Once the prey is stung, the wasp carries it back to her nest where she then lays a single egg and closes up the nest. The developing wasp larva feeds on the paralyzed prey, pupates and emerges as an adult wasp.

One group of solitary hunting wasps is referred to as thread-waisted wasps (family Sphecidae), due to their long, stalk-like waists. While most close up their nests (by kicking sand over the entrance) after stocking it with prey and laying an egg, some species close their nest with a pebble and return, remove the pebble, and periodically restock the nest with fresh caterpillars for the growing larva. (Photo by Mardie Holland: thread-waisted sphecid wasp with caterpillar prey)

Blueberry Stem Galls

3-29-17 blueberry stem gall IMG_7405Up to a dozen tiny black wasps (Hemadas nubilipennis) will emerge from this gall in the spring, around the time when blueberry bushes are flowering. After mating, the female wasp lays her eggs under the surface of the blueberry stems. Once she has completed her egg-laying, she climbs to the tip of the shoot and repeatedly stabs it, preventing further growth.

The plant reacts to the wasp’s egg-laying by forming a kidney-shaped gall. The majority of galls (up to 70%) are formed on stems within the leaf litter. These galls can be up to an inch in diameter, and they contain many developing larvae that feed on the walls of the gall and grow during the summer, overwinter as larvae, pupate inside the gall in the spring, and then emerge as adults when the blueberry bushes are in bloom in late May and early June. The adults are almost entirely females.

If a blueberry bush has many galls, it can be problematic.  A branch possessing a blueberry stem gall will not produce flower buds, and no flowers means no blueberries.

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Female Black and Yellow Mud Dauber Wasps Making Cells & Laying Eggs

8-19-16  mud dauber 028If you look closely at the ground directly in front of this female Black and Yellow Mud Dauber wasp you will see the clump of mud that she has collected and rolled into a ball with her mandibles.  This lump of mud will be carried back to the nest site in the wasp’s mandibles, and then used as building material to mold a cell.  After making the mud cell, the wasp then goes and locates spiders, stings them (paralyzing but not killing them) and brings them back to the cell, into which she packs them.  When the cell is sufficiently stuffed with spiders, she lays an egg and seals the cell with more mud.  She makes and fills several of these cells and typically covers all of them together with a final layer of mud.  When the wasp egg in each cell hatches, the larva has living spiders to eat that haven’t decomposed, due to the fact that they are not dead. Eventually the larval wasp pupates and the adult wasp chews its way out of the cell.

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Broad-leaved Helleborine Dispersing Pollen

8-10-16  helleborine pollinia 021Having known since childhood that most insects have only one pair of antennae, imagine my surprise when I came upon a hornet on Queen Anne’s Lace that appeared to have two:  a pair of slender, black antennae, and between them, a shorter pair of white ones.  A bit of research revealed to me that in fact, these white “antennae” were actually the pollen sacs (pollinia) of an introduced and somewhat invasive orchid, Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine).

Broad-leaved Helleborine is entirely dependent on insects to spread its pollen, especially wasps.  It attracts them with nectar, which is said to have an alcoholic and narcotic effect which may help with the spreading of pollen, as an inebriated wasp is less likely to clean pollen off its body before leaving.   Helleborine also produces a chemical which other plants produce and use to signal that they are being attacked by insects. It is used purely as a ruse by Helleborine, in order to attract wasps, Helleborine’s primary pollinators, who arrive to fend off other insects, and end up inadvertently collecting Helleborine’s pollinia.

Unlike the pollen of most plants,  Helleborine’s pollen grains are so sticky that they cannot separate – thus, the entire package of pollen remains intact and is removed at one time.  Wasps are capable of reaching the plant’s nectar without disturbing the pollinia, but cannot crawl out of the flower without striking against and detaching them and in so doing,  getting them stuck to their heads.    Can you find the pollinia in the insert photograph of a Broad-leaved Helleborine flower (which has not been visited by a wasp yet)?

Due to computer issues, Naturally Curious will resume posts next Tuesday, August 16.

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Bald-faced Hornet Nests No Longer Inhabited (if you live where there has been a hard frost)

Mary Holland holding very large wasp nest, which was built above her houseIf you research bald-faced hornet nests you will find that their average size is often compared to that of a football or basketball. The maximum size is said to be between 14 and 18 inches in diameter, and up to 23 or 24 inches in length. The pictured nest (which hung 20 feet above the roof of my house) measures 14 inches wide and 29 inches long – far larger than the average hornet nest!

This entire nest was built in roughly four months. It was started by a queen bald-faced hornet that, after emerging from hibernation this past spring, chewed some wood fiber, mixed it with her saliva and created a few brood cells surrounded by one or more paper “envelopes.” She laid an egg in each cell, and fed the hornet larvae insects which she first masticated into tiny bits. When the larvae pupated and emerged as adult workers, they assumed the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest, while the queen continued laying eggs in horizontal tiers of cells. This ongoing activity produced a colony of anywhere from 100 to 400 workers by the end of the summer. Shortly before the first hard frost this fall, the queen left the colony and found a protected spot in which to spend the winter. When freezing temperatures arrived, the workers all died, leaving a nest that will never again be inhabited by bald-faced hornets. (Thanks to Nick Burnham, who ingeniously managed to collect the nest for me, and Gary Trachier for the photo.)

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Pigeon Tremex Horntails Laying Eggs

horntails 239Horntails, also known as wood wasps, are non-stinging, wood-eating insects that lay their eggs deep within trees. Both male and female horntails have a pointed spine at the tip of their abdomen; females also have a long, slender ovipositor. (They get their name not from their spine or ovipositor, but from a knob (cornus) at the tip of their abdomen.)

Pigeon Tremex Horntails (Tremex columba) are active in late summer and early fall. A mated female inserts her ovipositor several inches into a dead or dying tree and lays an egg (where it is safe from most, but not all, predators). Along with the egg the adult horntail deposits some white rot fungus (Daedalea unicolor) which she stores in special abdominal glands. The fungus breaks down and softens the wood for the horntail larva to eat and is required for the successful development of the horntail. The larva typically begins consuming the soft, fungus-ridden wood around it, and then chews its way to the inner bark so as to provide a means of exiting the tree when it becomes an adult. The larva then returns to feed on inner wood. It completes its metamorphosis and emerges from the tree within a year as a winged adult horntail.

There is a parasitic wasp, the Giant Ichneumon Wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus), which possesses a long three-inch ovipositor capable of drilling into trees. There are several theories as to how this parasitic wasp detects the presence of horntail larvae deep within the tree. She may lay her antennae on the outside of a tree and pick up the vibrations of horntail larvae gnawing away in their wood chambers. Another theory proposes that the female wasp uses her antennae to smell the frass (droppings) of the horntail larva as well as the wood-softening fungus. Once she locates a horntail larva, the ichneumon wasp paralyzes it and then lays an egg on it. The ichneumon wasp larva feeds on the paralyzed horntail larva, consuming it completely within a couple of weeks. The ichneumon wasp then pupates and remains dormant under the bark until the following summer, when the adult emerges.

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