The Paper Wasp - une guêpe - La Poliste gauloise
This is my favourite wasp. It is so because I can recognise it immediately by its orange antennae. There are several species of these wasps in the southern areas of France. None of them occurs in Britain. They are very similar in appearance and one really wonders what it is that keeps them apart as species. The one in the photo is Polistes nimpha, in which the last segment of the body is black on the underside. Another common species is Polistes gallicus where this segment is yellow. So what, I ask? Why?
They are relatively docile creatures although when our roof was stripped for repair, the builders were alarmed by their flight in some numbers around their ears. And I fear, our postman was stung by some that thought the post box was a good home. As I have found, it is also happy to build its nest in the space beside a car door frame and at the edge of a window as in the photo. Its nest is small, being not much bigger than a golf ball. It is delicately constructed with tightly layered strands of woody threads gathered from old stems by chewing and redeposited after mastication. In effect it is a paper construction as in all wasps' nests, though sturdier than that of its relations. The nest is made very early in the year and is quite unprotected. Unlike the nests of the larger wasps there is no outer paper covering. This creates a problem when the weather gets really hot. Then it happens that the first workers which are reared seek water and spread that on the outer side of the nest. This evaporates and cools the nest. Normally there is but one queen in the nests of wasps and bees, but in Polistes the nest may well be constructed by two young queen wasps, as in the instance here. Probably both were reared in the same home nest the previous year. One of them is likely to be dominant and produce the eggs. The adults feed the developing larvae on regurgitated fragments and paté of caterpillars. They also collect nectar and make a kind of honey which is stored in some of the cells, so they are half way to being bees.
The photo shows well one distinguishing feature of all wasps. The wings at rest are not flat but folded lengthwise.
This particular wasp can suffer a curious kind of parasitism. Another wasp (Pseudopolistes) which looks very like the host can lay its eggs in the nest and just as with a cuckoo chick in a bird's nest the hosts will feed the larvae.