Polistes annularis; Dolichovespula maculata

A Polistes annularis (ringed paper wasp) forager stands on a rose leaf, closely inspecting its surface. Unusually, she holds all four of her wings raised and spread, rather than folding them along her back. Her rust-red markings and yellow legs shine brightly in the hot June sunlight, giving back an almost metallic gleam, and the tiny hairs that cover her carapace shine brightly in the light of the camera flash.
The same Polistes annularis forager prepares for takeoff – from the underside of a leaf. She seems totally unbothered to be hanging upside-down, and holds her body in an abdomen-high posture that enables her to beat her wings free of obstruction – this is why wasps’ back legs are so long. Her wings move so quickly that they’re only a blur, and through the nearer ones you can see her dark and slender abdomen.

She was looking for caterpillars, of which there were none, or at least none that I saw – she’d be far better at it, of course. She did find the honey I’d daubed on a few leaves of the rosebush, so either way, her trip wasn’t wasted. And I never knew they could take off upside down like this!

Folks often ask me just why I put so much effort into getting so close to wasps, and whether I’m not very afraid when I do. I’ve tried many times to answer questions like these, I think with greater success some times than others. But I can’t imagine ever being able to put into words the kind of beauty that’s visible in images like these – not least because it was making images like these that helped me first realize that I didn’t need to be afraid of wasps, anyway, not unless I did something to make them afraid of me.

Which is surprisingly hard to do! This next one, from 2021, isn’t a macro shot like the two above are. You’ll understand why, I think.

A bald-faced yellowjacket stands near the entrance of her family’s nest, seen head-on because she is intently watching the viewer. In warning posture, she would hold her wings raised, both ready for an attack flight and to make herself look larger and more imposing. Her wings are folded comfortably along her back.

This colony’s foundress built her family’s home upon my home – more specifically, under the eave of my house’s side porch. I didn’t realize they were there until I was on that porch; as best I can figure, I had my head less than a foot away from their nest before I ever realized they were there.

You’d think they would immediately attack, right? And I’ll admit, so would I have – granted, not too many people know wasps the way I do, but even I would’ve expected to elicit a response in defense of the nest, having carelessly come so close. Had it been a large colony, with a lot of babies to defend, I might have had a very uncomfortable afternoon! But in this case, they saw no need to object to my presence, and with my big 500mm birding lens I had the pleasure of exchanging level gazes with this handsome lady from just a few feet away.

Even a photo like this can’t really capture what that was like, of course. I’m glad to be able to share it, anyway.

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