We have a lot of wasps at the cottage, by our count at least 15 species, not so many considering there are over 500 species in Canada.
A wasp is an insect related to bees and ants. Divided into two large categories, one group is termed social wasps which usually live together communally and make paper nests, while the other group is described as solitary. Both groups have wings which they use to fly, tiny waists, and are important pollinators.
Yellowjackets are social wasps which live in nests they build from masticated wood fibre. We have often seen a yellowjacket stripping tiny lengths of fibre from the deck railing. We are conflicted. Using this material they seem to like to build their nests under our lakeside deck or hanging from the soffit under the cottage roof overhang. While we love all living beasts, we keep an eye peeled for the tiniest, early nest builds on the cottage so we can knock them down with a jet of water from the hose to encourage them to nest elsewhere, because yellowjackets sting. Wasps do not lose their stingers when they sting and can therefore sting repeatedly. They like to come to our picnics even though they are not invited. Having said that, it was very cool last summer when we spotted this yellowjacket eating a caterpillar preparing to pupate. Adult yellowjackets eat caterpillars and take the masticated material to the nest to feed their larvae.
Related to yellowjackets but a solitary wasp, potter wasps get their names from the shape of the small mud nests they build and attach to the underside of a twig. Depending on the species of potter wasp, the nest will hold one or more eggs. Like yellowjackets and spider wasps, potter wasps provision the eggs they lay with dead or paralyzed caterpillars. Adults feed on flower nectar.
The spider wasp is a solitary wasp we see every year. In keeping with their name, they prey on spiders to feed their larvae. We watched the drama of this spider wasp pulling, repositioning, pulling some more for several minutes before the wasp and its dead or paralyzed spider disappeared completely under the planter.
The beewolf wasp is also a solitary wasp which tunnels approximately 30 millimetres into the soil to lay its eggs and to sleep. True to its name, the adult female beewolf hunts sweat, cuckoo, and other bee species, placing several of its paralized prey together with an egg in an underground chamber to serve as food for the wasp larvae. Nature can be harsh. The adult beewolf feeds on nectar.
Neither a wasp nor a fly but a member of an entirely different order of insect (neuroptera), the brown wasp mantidfly visually mimics wasps while, at the same time, looking somewhat like a praying mantis. We thought we were looking at a wasp when we first saw this insect on the leaf of a plant at the roadside. The brown wasp mantidfly flies throughout southern Ontario in the spring and early summer and is most often seen on flowering plants in old fields. Mantidfly larvae seek out female spiders, feeding on her eggs.
Rather than being afraid of wasps, we are trying hard to appreciate them for being the beneficial insects they are. In addition to helping control other insects, wasps are important pollinators, as well as being a source of food for some species of birds. We will do our best to give them the respect they deserve while trying not to provoke them. Nevertheless, we will keep our Epipen handy.
In writing this article we relied primarily on Iowa State University’s www.bugguide.net, one of our favourite insect sites.