How Do Paper Wasps Make Their Paper?
Paper wasps are the paper-makers of the insect world. These social insects live together and build nests made of paper. They make their paper by chewing bits of old wood scraped from boards or woody plants and mixing it with their saliva. The wet material is patted and shaped into rows of paper cells, much like the wax cells of a bee honeycomb.
When the paper paste dries, the wasps have a strong paper nest in which to raise the young wasps. Paper wasp nests are often built to hang upside down from tree limbs or attached beneath the eaves of buildings. Their nests include numerous compartments within which wasps lay their eggs and rear their young.
The nests typically do not have an outer shell with the cells of the nest visible. In fact, it somewhat resembles an umbrella and is the reason they may be called umbrella wasps.
In North America alone, there are over 22 species of paper wasps. Paper wasps belong to the genus Polistes. Worldwide, there are over 200 species. These wasps measure 1.9 to 3.2 cm in length. Their narrow bodies are most commonly dark brown in color, with black wings and yellow markings. Some even appear similar to yellow jackets in coloration.
Paper wasps feed on nectar and pollen, although they also hunt for insects such as caterpillars with which to nourish their colonies’ larvae. As larvae develop into adults, they assist in expanding the nest and nurturing future generations.
Paper wasps are considered beneficial because they assist in pollination by feeding on nectar, and they control pest insect populations by feeding them to their larvae. However, despite their ecological benefits, paper wasp nests should not be permitted to develop in or near the home. Stings from paper wasps are extremely painful and may produce serious reactions to people who are allergic to the venom.
Paper wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets all make paper nests, though the size, shape, and location of their nests differ. Paper wasps build umbrella-shaped wasp nests suspended underneath eaves and overhangs. Hornets construct large, football-shaped nests. Yellowjackets make their nests underground. In general, though, the process of constructing all wasp nests is the same.
Wasps are expert paper makers, capable of turning raw wood into sturdy paper homes. A wasp queen uses her mandibles to scrape bits of wood fiber from fences, logs, or even cardboard. She then breaks the wood fibers down in her mouth, using saliva and water to weaken them. The wasp flies to her chosen nest site with a mouth full of soft paper pulp.
Construction of the wasp nest begins with a suitable support – a window shutter, a tree branch, or a root in the case of subterranean nests. The queen adds her pulp to the support. As the wet cellulose fibers dry, they become a strong paper buttress from which she will suspend her nest.
The nest itself is comprised of hexagonal cells in which the young will develop. The queen protects the brood cells by building a paper envelope, or cover, around them. The nest expands as the colony grows in number, with new generations of workers constructing new cells as needed.
Old wasp nests degrade naturally over the winter months, so each spring new ones must be constructed. Wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets don’t overwinter. Only the mated queens hibernate during the cold months, and these queens choose the nesting sites and begin the nest building process in spring.