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.

Auplopus architectus metallicus

A congeneric of A. mellipes mellipes, featured in an earlier post; unlike her cousin shown there, this pompilid is strikingly brilliant in her coloring, even to the naked eye. It’s harder to see that way, of course; this individual was about 3/4″ (18mm) from frons to abdominal apex. Luckily, I happened to be very near and already watching for movement when she turned up.

Despite their diminutive size, these wasps are exemplary in both strength and endurance. The spider she’s captured certainly outmasses her, perhaps by a factor of two, yet I watched her haul her prey up and then down the waist-high cyclone fence that borders my backyard. The above shot was taken while she dragged the spider along its top rail, the below while she was on her way there. Except to groom herself, she rarely paused.

Pompilid wasps, including those in the genus Auplopus, prey on spiders, but not for their own sake. The wasp’s venom paralyzes but does not kill the spider, which the mother wasp then buries with one of her own eggs laid upon or near it. When the egg hatches, the spider serves the wasp larva as a hapless larder, providing all the nutrition it requires to grow through pupation and into its adult form.

Even among the famously diverse family Hymenoptera, parasitoid wasps such as this one are enormously varied in their life histories and habits. Each genus and often each species has a unique design of burrow. Most are solitary, but some are quasisocial. Most provision each larva with a single spider and, once sealing a burrow, never revisit it; some practice progressive provisioning, bringing a series of smaller prey and providing the larva a degree of maternal care unusual in solitary wasps. Most are satisfied to simply envenom a spider or other item of prey; the tribe Ageniellini, of which Auplopus is a member, are unique in removing some or all of their envenomed prey’s legs for easier handling, as can also be seen here.

Horrifying? Perhaps – if you’re a spider. How might beef cattle regard humans?

Vespula maculifrons; Auplopus mellipes mellipes

I was doing some yardwork last October, cleaning up the margin of my back patio with a manual edger, when I noticed that a couple of yellowjackets had started pacing along with the work. At first I was concerned about the possibility that I’d trespassed too near a nest, and had made them feel as if they needed to deal with me. But then I realized they weren’t interested in me at all, so much as in what I was doing – they stayed quite close to where I was working, often just a few inches from my ankles, and made repeated low passes over the freshly upturned earth.

After a little while, I decided not to worry about them, as they were very evidently not worrying about me, and continued with what I was doing. A little while later, when I was close to done with the work, it became quite clear just why their interest lay where it did: they were hunting. Luckily, I had my macro rig near to hand and ready to use, and so caught some good close shots of one of them (and a couple of her rather distant cousins) wrestling with prey quite a bit larger than herself.

This was taken with the lens objective element about six inches from the subject, and with three quite powerful front-mounted flash heads firing besides. As far as I could tell, she was so busy with her prey that she never noticed my presence – a habit I’ve observed before in other wasps, such as those pictured elsewhere on this site. But even when they aren’t so occupied, I have yet to see a wasp so much as show any notice that I was taking pictures of her, much less attempt to attack me for so doing.

I suppose I can understand why people get so exercised about yellowjackets, but I’ve never really seen the need. The only time one of them has ever given me trouble was the time when I was driving along the highway with my windows open, and one got caught in the slipstream and ended up on my lap – all unawares, I dropped my hand into my lap, and of course she stung me, because who wouldn’t? I just counted myself lucky that she’d landed on her back, and thus jabbed me in a fingertip, rather than anywhere else. Having achieved her goal of making me take my hand away, she promptly flew back out of the car again, and my finger was sore for a couple of days, and then it was fine.

I suppose it helps that I keep an eye out for wasps in general, appreciating them for their industriousness and their beauty, and so I’m prepared to notice and steer clear of anything that seems like it might be traffic to and from a yellowjacket nest. I think it might also help that I am not afraid of them, and thus don’t feel the need to behave in ways that make them afraid of me. Why be upset that social wasps should defend their homes? Humans do the same.

The other day, I was working in my home office – a small room with many windows, not all of which fit perfectly into their frames – when I discovered I had a visitor, a small pompilid of an unfamiliar species which I believe to have been in the genus Priocnemis have since identified as Auplopus mellipes mellipes. She’d gotten herself tangled in a bit of cat hair, and I felt that it was incumbent upon me as her host to help her out of the bind, which I did. Once that was done, and she’d settled down a bit from her earlier dismay, I encouraged her to climb onto my hand, hoping for a good picture. That didn’t work out – on the one hand, pompilids’ hunting behavior makes them necessarily vulnerable and they are therefore disinclined to spend too much time at rest, and on the other, I don’t think she cared to be standing on something that moved. But she didn’t seem unduly bothered by it, either, and saw no need to sting me, nor did I fear a sting; after all, what is a human hand to a wasp whose entire body is no longer than the last joint of that hand’s little finger?

After offering a small refreshment of sugar water, I took her out on the side porch to see her on her way, and she flew off cheerfully enough, no doubt in search of spiders.

Polistes metricus

It turns out that paper wasps are pretty chill! If you’re not a threat to them or their nest, and you’re also not something they want to eat, then they just don’t care about you, even if you insist on snapping flash pictures of them from six inches away.

If you are something they want to eat, that’s a different story. P. metricus, like most paper wasps, eats only nectar and soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars; the yellow-and-black P. dominula aside, they don’t have the jaws to deal with a hard carapace. But of such soft-bodied insects they are ferocious hunters, and I caught these shots among others when a few P. metricus individuals found a fall webworm nest near work a month ago.

I ended up being glad I’d gotten these shots while I had the chance. A couple days later, the fall webworm nest was gone.


He’s a big fuzzy goofus.

This was a lucky shot, caught while I was goofing around with my grandfather’s old pre-AI 50mm f/2 prime. It taught me the value of fast prime lenses. (But I still don’t have a modern one, yet.)

August 18, 2020: He was a big fuzzy goofus. After twenty years, it’s hard to say goodbye, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll say:

So long, buddy rough.
Thanks for everything.

Schenuit Tire, August 6

‘Next time’, I said, and would not disappoint – though ‘next time’ has proven further away than I’d imagined then it would.

This is – this was – the Schenuit Tire Company’s manufacturing plant, whence came many thousand tires, once upon a time. The company has long since ceased to trade, but there is aught of its history here to be seen, even after several fires which have not been kind to the structure.

I hear there are some developers with plans for this great ruin. I wish them all the fortune in the world of it – poor fortune, that is, and poor fortune I think they shall have. That the place still stands is sign enough they do not know what to do with it. I hope it goes on standing for years and decades more.