Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wasps: Close encounter of a painful kind

The common and the large paper wasps are the most familiar wasps in the Maltese islands. 

Although a relatively small number of persons have ever been stung by one of these insects practically everybody is aware of this insect’s ability to defend itself by inflicting a painful sting. 

The yellow and black stripes are a form of warning colouration which informs potential predators that trying to eat a wasp will result in pain.

Both of these species are very common in the Maltese islands and can be found practically in every corner of the countryside sometimes very close to human habitats. 

They build a distinctive nest made of a paper-like material which they produce by chewing wood particles and mixing them with saliva to produce a thick fluid which dries on exposure to air. 

The nests are anchored to a vertical solid object such as a wall, rock face or tree trunk by means of a stalk. After building the nest they secrete an ant repelling chemical which they spread around the base of the stalk to prevent them from stealing the eggs or brood from the nest.

The nests of the two species look very similar and are built in similar places. 

The large paper wasp is slightly larger than the common paper wasp and builds a larger nest hence their Maltese names: żunżan tax-xehda (common paper wasp) and żunżan tax-xehda kbira (large paper wasp).

Paper wasps are predators. They hunt other insects which are then carried to the nest to provide food for the larvae. 

Wasps and are very important biological pest control agents and should not be destroyed.

Paper wasps are usually not very aggressive and will attack only if they or their nests are threatened. 

I have taken many close-up pictures of their nests and I have never been stung. The only trick is to move slowly away if they start behaving nervously and appear agitated. 

This article was published in The Times on 9.11.11

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