The first paper makers

July 1, 1993

According to most history books, paper is supposed to have been invented by the Chinese, but some wasps and hornets were making and using paper in their daily lives long before there were any Chinese. Eons before humans appeared on earth, these insects acquired the ability to moisten and chew up wood fibers to create a sort of papier-mache paste from which they constructed their nests. Papermaking wasps live in highly organized colonies with a caste system for the division of labor and are sometimes referred to as social insects.

Perhaps the wasp we are the most familiar with is the common Polistes or common paper wasp. Easily distinguished by their spindle-shaped abdomen and slender waist, polistine wasps construct their nests in the form of a row of cells hanging downward from a stalk beneath the edge of a roof, porch, under a picnic table, or some other protected location. The sting of these insects is painful, but the effects on man are usually minimal. Yellow jackets are closely related to the polistine wasps and build their nests underground and cover them with a layer of paper. These stingers have a short, stout body adorned with yellow stripes. Some yellow jacket nests may be as large as a bushel basket and harbor as many as 15,000 individuals, but most colonies are much smaller. The sting of the yellow jacket is quite painful and is a threat to those individuals who are allergic to their venom.

The wasp that builds the largest and most obvious nest is the bald-faced hornet. It is larger, more robust and more aggressive than the other two. This hornet has a black body that is strikingly marked with white. They construct a large, conical nest that hangs from a tree limb and resembles an over-inflated football. Each of these nests may contain several thousand hornets and are more obvious during the fall and winter of the year when most trees are leafless.

The venom injected by a hornet when it stings is much more potent than that of the Polistes or yellow jacket, and these dangerous insects should be avoided at all costs. Hornets are normally content to live and let live, but, when their nest is threatened, they will attack the offender with a fury seldom seen in the animal kingdom. I learned this fact of life the hard way when, as a Boy Scout, a group of us were on a camping trip and foolishly attacked a hornet nest with sticks and stones. After a hit was scored, the inhabitants poured out of the nest “as mad as hornets,” and all of us were stung repeatedly before we could flee to safety. Fortunately, none of us suffered any adverse reaction from the stings, except for the intense pain.

In a paper wasp society there is a caste system consisting of female queens and workers and male drones. The queen is the only fertile female in the colony, and her sole duty is to produce more hornets. The workers are sterile females who tend to the needs of the queen, provide food, conduct the necessary household chores, and defend the nest if attacked. The only function of the males is to mate with the queen from time to time. If too many nonproductive males are present in a colony, and the food supply is low, the excess number of loafers are unceremoniously kicked out of the nest by the workers.

New queens and males are produced and mate as winter approaches. Then, all the workers and drones die, leaving only a newly fertilized queen to perpetuate the species by hibernating in a protected site. As soon as spring arrives, the queen awakens and immediately starts the business of developing a new colony. She builds a small nest of paper, and the first eggs she lays are fertilized and develop into workers who tend the queen and care for the subsequent young. These first laid eggs of the season by the queen are fertilized with spermatozoa that she has stored in her body all winter long. When needed, males are produced from unfertilized eggs.

The sting of any wasp, bee, or hornet can be dangerous if a person happens to be especially sensitive or allergic to the venom. It is a fact that many more people in the United States die each year from the stings of wasps and bees than do from the bites of venomous snakes. If a wasp nest happens to be located in an area that is close to human activity, it is best to seek the services of a commercial pest control specialist rather than trying to alleviate the situation yourself.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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