KEEP BACK, the sign said.
That inviting package was wrapped in bright yellow ribbons saying “CAUTION,” so of course I went right over to check it out. **
A construction of remarkable beauty hangs from the drooping branches of a Western Redcedar in our neighborhood park. The size and shape of a football, it was finely crafted by the social wasps who built this nursery to house and raise their young. They’re called Dolichovespula arenaria, or aerial yellow jackets. Thankfully, our park’s management made the decision to let their nest stay rather than removing it.
The outer sheath looks like a watercolor painting: fibers of different tones from a brown palette woven together into diffuse stripes. (Or perhaps like bacon, if you’re reading this in the morning before breakfast.) The meandering colors evoke a landscape of flowing rivers or rock strata warped into waves over eons.
The nests are made, like so many homes here in the Northwest, by utilizing timber from our local forests. In the wasps’ case, unlike ours, the homebuilders don’t fell the trees; the workers harvest snags or chew wood that humans have already cut and put to use as sheds, fences or decks. In fact, if you’re sitting quietly in your backyard in spring or summer, you might hear a tiny gnawing that, with good eyes and an attentive mind, you can trace to a small yellow-and-black insect working at the nearby fence. (Click here for a video of a different kind of wasp chewing wood.)
Where do these colors come from, I wonder? Perhaps each brown or tan or buff stripe represents the type of wood gathered by one particular wasp at one particular place: your neighbor Mary’s beautifully weathered gray fence, or the dead dark-brown Douglas Fir that provided a home to last spring’s Pileated Woodpecker family. The foraging wasp has chosen a harvest site for her own reasons—maybe she thought its hue especially beautiful, or she found its taste exquisite. She flies back to the nest, chewing the fibers and mixing them with her saliva, then deposits the paste on the rim left by the last worker, creating a band whose color tells the story of her journey, her destination, her work.
Look closely at the photo below, and you can find tiny slivers of wood in the saliva paste, each color band a memoir, the multi-toned sheath a tale told in layers, as all good tales must be.
Within its protective cover, the nest holds the precious young, one larva in each cell. Here’s what the inside of this nest might look like:
Skilled caregivers go out and capture insects, then feed them to the growing young. After the larvae have extracted their own nutrition, the remnants then become concentrated food for the adults. Children feed their parents in diverse ways in many species, before they leave home to become part of new colonies.
A wasp nest in the forest: a finely bound book of family stories, quests and adventures, children raised and launched—all set in a particular landscape that is quite literally embedded in the woven text whose fragmented and rewoven pieces hold a community together. A good reason for an orange cone and some yellow CAUTION tape; we surely want to keep it safe in our natural library.
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** Footnote: Please be very, very careful around wasp nests! If you disturb the nest, the wasps are likely to come out and spend their energy defending the nest instead of maintaining it and taking care of their young. They may also label you with a pheromone that, as you’re running away, will alert any other wasps along your path to come after you…not a good way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. For you or the wasps.