How to

23 November 2016

How They Survive Winter: Wasps

When faced with an insect, most people recoil and cringe. God forbid it moves, spurring an automatic grimace composed of a mixture of fear and repulsion. Insects are not well-received by most of humanity. For the unusual ones among us (myself included), insects are a source of amazement and wonder. Just take a wasp for example. 

Wasps are some of the most dynamically-designed and fearsome-looking insects encountered in daily life. A more aggressive relative of the bee, female wasps are able to sting multiple targets several times without dying. Only female wasps are capable of stinging. The stinger of a female wasp has the dual function of acting as an egg-laying apparatus. Called an ovipositor, the barbed stinger is retractable, allowing for the laying of eggs or injecting of venom. The temperament of a wasp is directly related to its feeding habits; as a predator preying on pest insects – flies, aphids, caterpillars, other invertebrates – aggressiveness is as natural tie-in. 

Winter Living (or lack thereof)

Once the temperature begins to drop, roughly around autumn, male worker wasps begin to die off. Just before bidding the world a bittersweet farewell, the worker wasps return to the nest to impregnate female queens. This leaves female queens as the sole survivors of a vast colony, possibly 10,000 strong. Using any warm place to assume a deep sleep (i.e. old nest, newly-made hibernation cell, shed, loft), the queen wasp must survive the cold in order to start a new brood come the warm season. However, not only must the queen weather cold temperatures, predatory insects will often consume hibernating queens. Contrary to common belief, cold winters are best to ensure survival. Warm winters draw the queens out of hibernation earlier than necessary when food is still scarce. An early awakening can cause queens to die of starvation. 



Larger than the average wasp, queens emerge from their winter hideaways from April to early June. Immediately, the queen’s priority is finding a location to build her new, papery nest; a place to lay her eggs. Never will a queen use an old nest … likely because of the large concentration of dead wasps crowding the interior. Once the queen has found a suitable location, she will create a single cell anchored to a sturdy base. Adding six more cells will create a hexagonal shaped mini-nest in which the queen can lay her first batch of eggs. From there, she plays the waiting game for about three weeks while the eggs grow into larva, eventually pupating into adult worker wasps.

When the queen is alone, before any drones have matured to worker wasps, she must subsist on nectar. Once a budding colony is established, replete with young larvae, adult wasps catch insects to feed them. After gleaning all nutrients from the insects, the larvae regurgitate parts that are not edible (chitin) and produce a sugary liquid. Adult wasps consume this liquid, completing a cycle of co-dependent living.

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).