Every year, during the winter, I get calls about wasps entering peoples homes. These wasps are almost always dead upon arrival. Where did they come from? How did they get there? And the most important thing to understand is how wasps survive winter? The only wasps to survive the winter are mated females that hibernate over the winter months. These wasp queens wake in the spring to create nests and bring the population back again.
What happens to the other wasps that aren’t mated females? They die off in the late fall. Many people think that the cold weather is what kills them, but in actuality, they starve to death. Wasps require a constant supply of food in the form of other insects. Of course, those insects hibernate in the winter as well, making food for the wasp scarce enough to kill most of them off.
WHAT KIND OF WASPS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
These wasps are what most people refer to as paper wasps. They are known as paper wasps because they chew wood and mix it with saliva to create a substance known as carton. This carton appears to be much like paper. It is this material that they use to build their nests, often hanging from trees or und the eaves of houses. These wasps are sometimes called vespids because they are classified in the genus Vespula.
Like many wasps, the paper wasp has a pretty hard life. They are carnivorous, feeding on other insects. They are somewhat social creatures, living in nests, but they are by no means as organized as their distant cousins, the ants. Their life cycle is an interesting one to say the least.
THE LIFE CYCLE OF A PAPER WASP
For the purpose of making things simpler, we will separate the life cycle of the paper wasp into four sections. Most other wasps also follow the same life cycle as they move from the prosperity of the summer months to the harshness of the winter months. Each insect must find a way of serving its purpose in the bigger picture of life, and then dying out to make room for new wasps. This usually means being either eaten by another animal or insect, or starving to death in the winter.
The first step in the life cycle of the paper wasp is the hibernation period over the winter. The only wasps that hibernate over the winter are mated queens. These wasps are known as foundry wasps, because they will be the first to create a new nest. Many other bees, such as the bald face hornets, bumble bees and yellow jackets over winter in the same way, only the mated queens hibernating.
Most of these queens will not survive to nest. They find cracks and crevices to hide and hibernate in. Spiders often use the same locations to hibernate and will use the sleeping wasps for food. Scientists believe that only about 2 out of every 4,500 wasps will survive the winter. Colder winters are better for these wasps. When they get too warm, they will come out of hibernation and look for a nectar meal. If it is too early and the flowers aren’t yet in bloom, they will die of starvation.
The founding of the colony is a deadly race against time. They need to find nectar very quickly to keep from dying, and they must find a suitable place to nest. This translates to thousands of trips to collect wood to create carton. They will build the nursery first, and lay eggs as quickly as possible. She will then continue to build the nursery and nest. Up until this point, she has gained her energy from sugary nectar, but once the first eggs have hatched, they will need protein to grow. This also means that the queen will have to start hunting. With all the hunting and nest building, she will no longer have time to feed herself. So, to keep her going, the grubs will convert the skeletons of the insects she has brought to feed them into sugar, which the queen feeds upon.
Once the first worker wasp has come to maturity, the queen will become nest bound. This is because now, the worker bees will take on the day to day tasks of the new nest. The queen can just focus on laying eggs. From this point on, the nest has every reason to come to full maturity.
The final stage of procreation ensures that these wasps will survive the winter to begin the cycle again. Not much is understood about this process. The queen will decide which eggs will become reproductives. We’re not sure how she chooses this, but it is believed that she feeds them a hormone that makes them reproductive. The other eggs that would become worker wasps are destroyed by the queen. In a process that we have not figured out yet, all the wasp nests in a large area will produce their reproductives at the same time. This means that when the time is right, all the reproductives from multiple nests will swarm at the exact same time for only a few hours. These queens will mate, their male counterpart will die, and they will hibernate starting the process all over again.