In Our Backyard

At a very young age, I adopted a practice that has served me well:  when wasps are around, I try not to be. It’s not that I hate them; we just don’t exactly get along. Put me in a crowd of people, and an irate wasp will single me out to torment. This can be a problem, because an annoyed wasp can pack a powerful wallop. 

 But not long ago, I watched a yellow and black mud dauber as she built her nest in the rafters of my shed. Several times throughout the afternoon, I would pause and check her progress, and with each visit, I came away feeling more amazement at her beauty, at her nest building skills, but, especially, at how much I enjoyed being so near a wasp. 

 Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate wasps – many of them anyway.


 Wasps come in two categories: social wasps and solitary wasps. For the most part, it’s the social wasps – hornets, yellow-jackets, and paper wasps – that give humans the most problems.  These congregating wasps live in large colonies. Hornets build the large ball shaped nests in the woods; yellow-jackets build underground, and paper wasps build the paper-like, inverted-umbrella shaped nest that you often see hanging under the eaves of buildings and in sheds. All of these wasps protect their territories with painful stings, and they deserve to be given a wide berth.

 Then there are the solitary wasps – such as they mud dauber that was building in my shed. They have been on the earth much longer than community wasps, most of them are very beautiful and quite meek, plus they live very interesting lives.

 The most common varieties of solitary wasps build mud nests. Most people call them mud daubers, and you’ve probably seen their worked cemented to the ceilings and walls of sheds and barns. Some of the nests can be very elaborate – stacked on top of one another, they look like pipe organs made of mud. Each of the tubes is built for a single egg.


 Like bees, it’s the female wasps that sting. She uses an ovipositor – a multifunctional gland that can either lay eggs or inject venom.   Once she lays her eggs, she hunts for food – usually spiders – for the future wasp’s first meal. Different species of mud daubers hunt for different varieties of spiders. Yellow and black mud daubers, for instance, will hunt for colorful crab spiders, while the blue mud daubers prefer to feed their young immature black widow spiders.  Once the mud dauber has located the correct spider, she stings it, which paralyzes and preserves the meal, and then she seals it into the chamber with the egg. When the larva hatches, its first meal is there waiting.

 All in all, there are 18,000 different species of wasps, and almost all of them are very beneficial to man, and since they prey upon almost every kind of insect that we consider to be pests, some farmers even import them to help keep insects off crops. 

 Still, I don’t think wasps are ever going to be thought of as cute and cuddly, and I’ll probably always have trouble with some of them. But who can deny that they are wonderful examples of nature’s resourcefulness. Besides, you have to look up to any insect that weighs several times less than a dime, but can chase a full grown man across his backyard.


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