Our Backdoor Neighbors

By Frank C. Pellett



page 139
 The weather was very wet and the Naturalist was not finding his usual enjoyment in the open air.  It only stopped raining long enough to get ready to begin again, and there were few of the bright and warm days which make one long to be an Indian and to live always out of doors.  Father and Mother Red-tail had found the little grove too public a place to raise a family, and this year had made their nest in some distant location beyond the haunts of the Naturalist and Tommy Jones.

 The Screech Owl family were living in a ready-made house near at hand, but for some reason the Naturalist was not making his usual number of acquaintances.  It so happened that on the sixth of June he was walking among the beehives when he chanced to pick up an old cover which was leaning against an unused hive.  To his surprise, he found on the under side of the cover a small paper nest, and on it the sole proprietor, Mrs. Gold-banded Paper-maker.  Two years before he had become interested in a similar nest, only to have it destroyed when things were getting really interesting.  He determined to use every precaution to prevent a similar catastrophe this time, for here was an acquaintance worth while.

 Mother Paper-maker had built her little nest all by herself, and it already contained numerous cells which served the purpose of cradles for the baby wasps, for Mrs. Paper-maker was a wasp.  A careful count showed fifteen eggs, and eleven young larvæ that had already hatched.

 When the Naturalist had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Cottontail, there was first Mother Cottontail and then the babies.  When he had come to know Mother Red-tail, there was first Mother Red-tail, then the eggs, and later the babies.  When the insect world opened to him, the life cycle was still longer, for first there was Mother Paper-maker, then the eggs, later the larvæ; then they encased themselves in silken cocoons, and became pupa, and later appeared as wasps like their Mother.  Mother Paper-maker was a widow, for Father Paper-maker had died the fall before, shortly after their honeymoon.  So Mother Paper-maker must build her nest, care for her young, and hunt for food all alone.  The Naturalist was very anxious to pry into the secrets of her household.  He wished to know how she made the paper from which she built her nest, how she made the cells after she had made the paper, how she captured the insects on which she fed her young, and many other things.  It no longer mattered that Father and Mother Red-tail were only seen on rare occasions, or that Mother Polecat had taken her family and moved into the woods where the Naturalist seldom saw them.  The new friends soon occupied so much of his time that he did not miss the old friends who had moved away.

 At first Mrs. Paper-maker was much disturbed at his presence, but he came so often and stayed so long that she soon paid no attention to his visits, even when he took the cover to which her nest was attached and laid it on his lap in order to watch her movements.  When she flew away for food he always put the nest back exactly as it had been, for she could not find it otherwise, even though she had flown directly from it but a minute or two before.

He found a small paper nest and Mother Wasp feeding her young.

 A close examination of the nest showed that the eggs were not placed in the bottoms of the cells, as the queen bee deposits hers, but that they were attached to the side of the cell a little above the bottom.  When the young larvæ hatched they remained attached to the cell in about the same position.  The mother wasp spent much time in feeding her young, giving them such attention very frequently, and also spent a great deal of time with her own toilet.  After every meal she would carefully clean first one leg and then another, and brush every particle of dust off her body and head.

 Soon after the nest was found the weather turned cool and it rained again.  With the temperature at about fifty degrees, the mother settled herself quietly on the nest and made no move to feed her young or to continue her building.  Even when the Naturalist visited her she hardly moved from her resting place above the nest.  Although it remained cool for two days, as far as could be seen the larvæ were not fed.  The weather warmed somewhat on the afternoon of the third day, but the wasps were not apparently conscious of it.  The fourth day the mother wasp became very active again and fed her young almost constantly.  The Naturalist was much puzzled about her feeding.  At times she would bring little balls of food which he learned were bits of caterpillars which she had caught and kneaded into pulp between her mandibles.  At other times she would seem to feed the very young larvæ, when apparently she had nothing to give them.  That she did feed them he was sure because they moved their lips as though eating after she left them.  Some birds feed their young with partly digested food which is regurgitated by the mother, and it looked as though the mother wasp must be doing the same thing.  The pieces of caterpillar steak which she brought home were about the size of small number eight shot.  After kneading it carefully by turning it round and round between her jaws, seemingly to make it tender, she would divide it into two or three parts and give it to the larger larvae.  Sometimes they would suck these bits for several minutes, when the mother wasp would take them again and eat them herself, or give them to other larvæ.  At other times the youngsters would swallow the bits after sucking them for several minutes.

 One day the Naturalist caught a mosquito and, rolling it between his thumb and finger, imitated the kneading which the mother wasp gave the bits of food, as well as he could.  Then placing a bit of it on a grass stem he gave it to a larva.  The little larva opened its mouth, much like a young bird waiting to be fed, and took the bit of mosquito and tried for some time to eat it.  He caught a red mite also and gave to another in similar manner.  The mite, being very small, was swallowed at once, but the larva which had the mosquito was still wrestling with it when the mother wasp returned to the nest and took it away.  After kneading it for some time she ate it herself.

 The Naturalist then caught other mosquitos and tried to feed to other larvæ in similar manner, but the mother wasp seized them and bit them viciously and dropped them at once.  She became much agitated and flitted her wings in a most nervous manner.  Finally the Naturalist fed such a bit to a larva without the mother seeing it until the youngster had tried for some time to dispose of it.  Again she took it and kneaded it for a time, but instead of eating it herself, as she did the first time, she fed it to another larva, which swallowed it.

 Thus the Naturalist took lessons from the mother wasp in feeding the babies, which were destined to serve them well later in the season when the mother had been lost.  However, this is getting ahead of the story.

 The Naturalist was anxious to see the mother in the act of enlarging her nest.  He had seen her tear down part of some cells when she was agitated, and could hear the cutting of the paper with her sharp mandibles.  After kneading it a moment she dad fed a larva a bit of the paper, which it ate in apparent enjoyment.  He had also seen her apparently in the act of building just for a moment now and then, and was beginning to wonder whether she ever worked seriously at building.

 He had about decided that she did such work with a touch now and then at odd times, when on June 25, after nearly three weeks of patient watching, he saw her hard at work.  It must be remembered that the weather was cool and wet much of the time, and that conditions were favorable for insect life only a part of the time.

 She gathered her raw material for paper-making near at hand, and the Naturalist had no difficulty in following her from the nest to a weather-beaten post but a few feet distant, where she secured her pulp.  She alighted on the post and with her mandibles cut away enough of the weather-beaten wood to make a good mouthful.  She would then fly directly to the nest, where she would stand for a moment, kneading the pulp between her jaws, and with her forefeet turning it round and round, much as she did the caterpillar which she was preparing to feed the young.  She would then spend some time in looking about over her comb to select a suitable place for work.  When she had satisfied herself as to the proper place to begin, she would bite the soft pulp against the top of a partly constructed cell.  It seemed very soft and waxy and spread easily.  She pushed her forefeet against the opposite sides of the thin wall, backing slowly around the cell and drawing out the new tissue very thinly.  Sometimes she would pass clear around the cell and sometimes only part way.  At times she would add as much as a sixteenth of an inch to the structure with a single mouthful.  But two or three minutes were necessary to get a load of raw material.  After each mouthful she would rest a moment and make her toilet.  Then she would peek into a few cells, after which she should be off again, for another load.

 Between times she made a very elaborate toilet, at times standing on her hind legs and rubbing the other four together.  At other times she would stand on her forelegs and extend the others behind her.  Rarely she stood on her right middle leg in about her normal position and stroked herself with the others as well as rubbing them together.  Standing thus on one leg, she presented a striking appearance.

 Although the Naturalist spent much time with the wasps nearly every day, it was a long time before he saw Mother Paper-maker in the act of laying her egg.  When the weather was nice she laid an egg nearly every day, as he knew by watching carefully the cells which were empty the day before.  In cool weather she would sometimes miss a day or even two or three, if it did not warm up during a part of the day.  The Naturalist would make careful note of every empty cell daily and watch to see when eggs were laid.  She laid on the 11th and 12th, then again on the 14th and 15th.  Only one more egg was then laid until the 20th.  Apparently, these wasps are very sensitive to weather conditions.

 After many days of waiting the Naturalist finally decided that the eggs were laid in the morning between eight and eleven o’clock.  Finally, on the last day of June, he decided that he must witness the act of depositing the egg in the cell.  He had an engagement in a distant city and felt that he could not be content to go until his curiosity has been satisfied.  Accordingly, he took up his watch soon after eight o’clock and waited.  The mother wasp was rather sluggish, and there was little action to keep up interest in the wait for nearly two hours, before she began preparing for her day’s work.  She would remain entirely motionless for many minutes at a time, then she would look into a few cells and be quiet for a long period again.  Finally about ten-thirty o’clock she flew away and was gone but a few moments, when she began looking about, apparently in search of an empty cell.  Finding one by pushing her head in, she doubled herself very shortly and pushed her abdomen into it.  She then remained quiet with her ovipositor near the bottom of the cell for several minutes.  At last she moved out and again put her head in to see that the newly laid egg was in its proper place.  Afterward she again became quiet for some time.  Although the Naturalist nearly missed his train because of his long wait at the next, he felt amply repaid for the time.

 A number of eggs were noted, to ascertain the time required for hatching.  Most of them hatched in just eighteen days.  When the weather warmed a bit some hatched in sixteen days.  Since the weather was cool and the temperature below normal, it is probable that more time was required than would be the case in a warm season.  A number of those observed in spinning their cocoons required twenty-three days to complete the transformation.  A few individuals required twenty-five days.  Two years before, some under similar observation completed this stage of development in only fifteen days, so the weather apparently greatly influences the time required in the different stages.

Larva spinnning its cocoon and emerging wasps.

 When the larvæ had completed their growth, the spinning of the cocoons was an interesting observation.  It was on the 25th of June, after the first two larvæ had entered upon their long sleep, that the Naturalist saw two more in adjoining cells spin their cocoons and begin the wonderful transformation, during which they were changed from helpless white larvæ to mature wasps.  Probably not more than an hour was required to spin the cocoon.  The silk was very filmy and so fine that a single strand could hardly be seen with the naked eye.  During the spinning the larvæ moved their heads back and forth, round and round, constantly adding to the web.  At first it was very thin, and the inmates of the cell could easily be seen at work through the thin network.  However, it gradually thickened until they were entirely hidden from view and there was nothing to do but wait until the baby awakened from its sleep and came forth a glorified creature, as compared with the shapeless white body that entered the quiet cocoon.

 Thinking to see something of the wonderful change as it took place, the Naturalist cut a small hole in the top of one cocoon.  The day following the cell was found to have been emptied and a new egg placed therein.  Apparently this change can only take place behind closed doors where prying eyes cannot behold the preparation for its resurrection.

 The combs of the honeybee are built perpendicular with openings on both sides.  The bottom of each cell is opposite a part of the bottom of three other cells.  The wasps build their combs horizontally with the open end downward and no opposite cell.  While the gold-banded paper-maker builds only a single comb and makes it large or small according to whether the mother wasp be vigorous and prolific, there are other species that build several combs, one above another and inclose them all in a paper case.  As the days went by the Naturalist came to cultivate a close acquaintance with the little yellow-banded wasp and her offspring.  He caught mosquitos and fed to the larvæ almost daily.  At times the mother would take them away and eat them herself, at other times she would feed them to the youngsters, but more often she would resent the interference with her family affairs and toss the dead mosquito contemptuously away.  At times, when she became nervous or angry, she would cut the tops of some of the paper cells.  Snip, snip, she would cut away, using her mandibles just like a pair of scissors.  Although the Naturalist watched closely, he never saw her feed the paper to her young but the one time already mentioned.  When the Naturalist found small caterpillars she would accept them and roll them up carefully and knead the little ball vigorously and feed it to the larvæ.

 On warm days Mother Paper-maker was very active.  Between her building and the feeding of her young, she was busy indeed.  When she was engaged in enlarging the home for her growing family she would make a trip for wood pulp and return again in two or three minutes.  After each load was duly placed in the wall she would tarry for a minute or two to clean herself carefully from any clinging dust,  and be off again.  As the season advanced the number of larvæ increased, and made a corresponding demand upon their busy mother for food.  By this time several had spun their cocoons, but others were hatching all the time, and more eggs were being laid in the newly built cells.

 On the morning of July 16, the Naturalist visited the nest as usual.  There had been an unusually heavy rain the night before, lasting a good part of the night.  When he peeked under the hive cover he was greatly disturbed to find that the nest had fallen to the ground, and that the mother wasp was not to be seen.  He carefully replaced the nest, fastening it with glue and pins to the board where it had formerly been.  He hoped that the mother was afield in search of food and that she would soon return.  After waiting all day in vain, he was convinced that she had gone never to return, and was at a loss to know what to do with the nestful of eggs, larvæ, and pupæ.  He had marked a number of them in order to determine the period of their various stages of growth, and felt that he could hardly be reconciled to an accident of this kind.

 Near at hand was another similar nest, but the mother was not a very lively sort and had but a few cells.  He decided to give her both families to see whether she would adopt the unfortunates.  Accordingly, the nest was fastened close beside her own nest under a big box lid.

 The foster mother did not take kindly to such an arrangement, and moved rapidly over the strange comb, flitting her wings violently and showing evidences of displeasure.  Since the Naturalist had seldom visited this wasp, he felt that perhaps the fact of his presence caused her agitation as much as the presence of strange babies.  Accordingly, he kept away until the following morning in order to give her an opportunity to assume her new responsibility without unnecessary annoyance.  On his return the following morning he found her with her head in a cell.  She came out with an egg in her jaws, which she ate.  An examination showed that she had disposed of some of the larvæ in a similar manner.  Since the Naturalist could ill afford to have his observation interrupted in any such cannibalistic manner as that,  he decided to take the nest to his study, and see what he could do toward raising the orphans by hand.

 He soon realized that he had undertaken a rather novel experiment.  There were eggs which would hatch every day or two for two or three weeks, young larvæ just hatched and others in every stage of growth up to those which were ready to spin their cocoons.  There were also a considerable number of sealed cells containing pupæ, but as yet none of the young wasps had emerged.  He began to frequent the cabbage patch in search of cabbage and cutworms.  Placing the unfortunate worm on a board, he would cut it into bits with a sharp knife and feed the bits to the larvæ with a grass stem as he had done when the mother was still present.  He found it possible to feed the very young larvæ as well as the older ones, but they did not thrive.  On the 18th of July the first cell opened and a young wasp, a perfect picture of the missing mother, emerged.  The Naturalist now felt his hopes rise high, for would not the newly matured lady, mother her unfortunate sisters?  He could hardly wait to see.  The nest was placed on the porch of the study in order to give her full opportunity to fly to the fields in search of food as soon as she was old enough to assume such a responsibility.  The same day a second female emerged, so the Naturalist felt that he would soon be relieved of his arduous task.  It is a hard job for a mere man to mother his own offspring at a tender age, and when it comes to feeding newly hatched wasps he is hardly prepared to do full justice to the needs of the infants.  Within a few hours after the emergence of the young wasps he caught a cutworm and cut it up for the larvæ as usual, but this time he fed the bits to one of the elder sisters to whom he was looking for expert assistance.  To his great joy, she took it and holding it between her forelegs, kneaded it exactly as he had seen her mother do so many times.  After the food had received suitable preparation she fed one or two of the larvæ.  This action within a few hours after her own emergence, convinced the Naturalist that his troubles were soon to end.  However, he was doomed to disappointment, for this proved an unusual case.  As others matured and the nest became populous with adult females, he was greatly disappointed to find that they not only would not forage for their baby sisters, but only now and then would they even take the trouble to feed them after he had caught the worms.  None of the mature wasps remained more than a few days,  when they disappeared.

No mature wasps remained for than a few days...

 By the fifth of August about a dozen had emerged, and only one still remained at the nest.  A larva which hatched on June 29 died that day.  It was one which had been marked to determine the length of its larval period, and although the Naturalist had kept it alive for twenty days after its mother had disappeared, it was apparently no larger than when she last fed it herself.  While his careful ministration had been sufficient to enable the larger larvæ to complete their growth, the food which he was able to supply did not meet the needs of the very young ones.  Either it was not suitable in quality, or it was not properly prepared or supplied in proper quantity or at the proper time.  At any rate, he did not succeed in raising any of the larvæ that were not more than half grown at the death of their mother.

 About this time he found still another small nest under the eaves of his study, and having given up hope of further success by hand, he pinned this nest beside the other to see whether there would be any better success in getting the orphans adopted than in the previous instance.  The weather was still cool and wet.  The summer of 1915 was a record-breaker in this respect.  A week later the Naturalist examined the two other nests of the same kind, only to find them deserted, the mother wasps having disappeared.  The nest which he had so long cared for still remained beside the one which he had hoped would adopt it as part of the family, but the mother of this family had apparently gone also, although two lately emerged females were present.

 It was on the same day that he found another paper-maker’s nest, larger and more populous than any he had found.  All the others, excepting the unfortunate one under his direct care, had been small and the mothers had disappeared early.  Up to this time he had not seen a single male, and he was beginning to wonder about where the fathers of the next generation were to come from.  Since the other nests with which he had occupied himself were now practically deserted, he was glad, indeed, to find one in normal condition.  An examination showed that there were still eggs and young larvæ in the new nest, besides pupæ and seven adult females.  He was so curious about the new discovery that he was stung four times that day for insisting on looking into things that the wasps seemed to feel were none of his business.  On September 4 there was only one egg still unhatched, but still no males had appeared.  It was not until September 10 that the first male emerged.  He was recognized on sight because of his bright yellow face and lighter color.  The seven segments of the abdomen and the absence of a sting established the sex beyond question.  For several days about as many males appeared as females, but soon there were more males at the nest than females.  As about as many were leaving the nest as were emerging from the cells, the tendency was toward a decrease in number of adults present rather than an increase.  The last larva died on October 3.  It was nearly grown, but had apparently not grown any for many days.  Apparently, its sisters had fed it just enough to keep it alive, but not sufficient to enable it to complete its development.  The Naturalist had not marked the date when it hatched, but it was about the same size as another which hatched on August 10.  If the age was the same as it appeared, it was about fifty days old.  At that time there were still a few sealed cells from which the pupæ were still to emerge, and one lone female remained at the nest.  The season had been so abnormal that the Naturalist had found it very difficult to make satisfactory observations and the variation was such that no satisfactory estimate could be made of the normal period required for completing the life cycle.

 With the approach of autumn the females seek their mates, and then hibernate in some sheltered place where they pass the winter.  With the coming of another summer the Naturalist will seek their nests again in the hope of observing them more favorable conditions.  This time he will be familiar with their habits and will not find it difficult to see the thing for which he is looking.  It is hardly necessary to suggest that he will not likely undertake to raise another wasp family by hand.

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