05 December 2011

Seeing wasps in another light, a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What is Home?"


I moved to Florida nearly 20 years ago. and within those first couple of weeks I ran into what my dad would have called Florida's "bug problem."

My first exposure to Florida's insects took place in the wee hours of the morning. I was living in Orlando then and I thought that hermetically sealed suburban house I called home at the time could shield me from anything Florida could throw at me.

Hah. In the pre-dawn hours one morning I was lying in bed, drifting between consciousness and unconsciousnesss. I was on my back when I felt something crawl across my naked chest. In the same motion, I grabbed the bug crawling across me and leapt out of bed. With my heart still racing, I decided that the only good Florida bug was a dead one. That was my first exposure to the Palmetto bug. Palmettos are a large species of cockroach. Unlike most roaches, palmetto bugs don't set up house in a house. Rather they get in when they're looking for water or by mistake. I didn't know that then. To me, what had just crawled over me was the largest cockroach the northeast had ever produced. Ugh.

Despite Florida's tropical climate, I was going wage a one man war against the worst Florida could throw at me. So I spent the next 15 years or so killing anything that crawled, buzzed or spun a web. There was no pesticide strong enough so car as I was concerned.

I moved to St. Pete in 1996 and when I got here there was a bug I hadn't dealt with before. This is the Gulf Coast of Florida's mud dauber wasp.

It's commonly called the black and yellow mud dauber but technically, its real name is Sceliphron caementarium. S. caementarium is nearly three inches long and is a pretty intimating creature. When I first encountered one of them it was just another thing that was waiting to sting me and I couldn't kill it fast enough.

However, they just kept coming and wherever they ended up they would make their fist-sized nests. Every time I'd knock one down it would be full of dead spiders. That always mystified me.

At around the same time I was mystified by the contents of a mud dauber's nest the internet was taking shape and for the first time, I could track down information easily. In doing searches I found out the name of my wasp and I started to read about its way of life.

S. caementarium is a solitary wasp and once I realized that it wasn't going to sting me, I could see it for the beautiful creature it is. I mean look at it. It's abdomen pretty much defines a wasp waist. What a gorgeous animal.

Female mud daubers are skilled hunters and they hunt spiders. Once they catch one they sting it. They don't sting to kill, merely to paralyze. Once their prey's been stupefied, they transport it back to structure like this.

I took that photo on my patio yesterday.

These structures that I used to assume were nests are actually brooding chambers. It take the wasp a couple weeks to construct and it's made from soil and saliva and she makes it one mouthful at a time. It's not until it's completed that she goes about her hunting missions.

Her goal in life is to pass along her genes and she does so by building a structure, filling it with paralyzed spiders, and then laying a single egg on top of them. Once the egg's sealed into the chamber, it passes through its larval and pupal stages unseen and without any help from its parents.

Now that I know this stuff about our mud daubers I don't kill them on sight obviously. How could I kill something with such a life story? Learning about them had a couple of effects I never would have imagined. It made me reconsider the entire family of insects and the entire kingdom Insecta.

If S. caementarium had a story to tell what other bugs did? Well it turns out just about all of them do. Even my much-loathed Palmetto bug, or Eurycotis floridana, as it's more properly known. Though I still can't prevent myself from killing every palmetto bug I see, I stop and consider the rest of them. Our humble mud dauber gave me a window into a world I would have ever seen otherwise. The creatures we consider to be pests are every bit as evolved as we are. In some ways they fit their environments better than we do.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Paul, I can't say I share your affection for wasps! Although you may have a different kind then we have here in San Diego. We only had them here once, and I called an exterminator. On the other hand, though, I have always liked bees and have always left them strictly alone. In fact I actually enjoy watching them going from flower to flower on a hot sunny afternoon.


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