Ready, Aim, Sting!

Paper wasps pack some zing.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

They arrive with the first warm days of spring, flitting apparently aimlessly through the sunlit air, drifting occasionally through an open window to bat laconically against the glass panes, poking inquisitively under the eaves and in the sheltered corners of front porches. They are paper wasps, sometimes also known as “umbrella wasps” for the gray, many-celled, umbrella-shaped nests that they will determinedly construct in just those sheltered spots we’ve so conveniently offered them in our homes, sheds and backyard decks. And yet, eyed with a wary respect, these beneficial insects are impressive architects—painstaking builders on gossamer wings.

Paper wasps belong to the insect order hymenoptera, which includes ants, bees and wasps, explains Eric Day, an entomologist who is manager of Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab. They are so-named because of the material they use to build their nests, which is, essentially, a kind of paper they have processed themselves. “They chew off mostly bark, but also exposed wood on houses and fences,” says Day, “adding saliva to it to make the paper.”  

In the spring, according to Day, a solitary female, who mated in the fall and has overwintered in a sheltered spot, sets out to find a suitable location to start a nest. Those are the wasps you see wandering the airways and crawling along your porch railings, weighing the relative merits of this corner and that overhang. “The female queen starts the nest, and then starts and raises the brood until she produces the first few offspring, and they become her workers,” says Day. “Then she stays on the nest all the time laying her eggs, and all her workers are getting the wood to extend the nest and gathering the food.”

That food includes soft-bodied insects like caterpillars, as well as plant nectar, which is why wasps are considered beneficial insects both as pest-controllers and pollinators. They are also said to be not particularly aggressive unless directly disturbed, though Day explains they get more ornery as the summer wears on: “When you have a single queen starting a colony in the spring, she is not going to want to risk everything at that time. But later on when you start having a large number of workers, in the late summer and early fall, they are very aggressive.”

How much confidence you want to put into that general rule of thumb depends on how willing you are to test it with an insect that can deliver a memorable wallop of a sting. In the department of “he suffers so you don’t have to,” University of Arizona entomologist Justin O. Schmidt has quantified exactly how painful said sting can be. He is the creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which ranks the agony value of hymenoptera stings on a scale of 1 to 4, accompanied by vivid descriptions, many of which apparently have been inspired by personal experience.

Weighing in at an attention-commanding 3, the sting of the paper wasp, according to Schmidt, is “caustic and burning, with a distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.” And because you want to know: the most painful wasp sting on the scale—a 4, and second only to the excruciating sting of the bullet ant—is that of the terrifyingly large tarantula hawk wasp. “Blinding, shockingly electric,” according to Schmidt, who says it feels like “a running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

Of course, a paper wasp’s sting can prove considerably more unpleasant if you happen to be allergic—bees, wasps and hornets kill far more people in the U.S. every year than sharks, bears, snakes, alligators and spiders put together, and severe anaphylactic shock can occur in as few as 10 minutes. Lethality aside, however, hymenoptera stings are in fact fascinatingly complex—and effective—chemical weapons, and, in case you were wondering, a paper wasp can definitely sting you more than once. “I get stung every year by paper wasps,” says Day. “These wasps can sting again and again, and sting you again the next day if you let them.”

And so can their fellow workers. If you care to pause to reflect upon the scientific wonders of the natural world the next time you face an angry wasp or three, know that, for one thing, only the females sting, and, for another, according to Dr. Tappey Jones, a chemist at VMI, the first wasp to sting you paints a chemical “target” on the spot to helpfully guide her #waspsquad of vengeful girlfriends to their destination.

By sometime in late fall, however, the nest will be abandoned, and, says Day, will not be reused the following year. So Day counsels a spirit of tolerance whenever possible. “If they are out of the way and you can tolerate them, you are getting a lot of free biological control,” he says. “Live and let live.”

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