The common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) is found in much of Europe and Eurasia and has been introduced to Australia and New Zealand. It is sometimes confused with the common yellowjacket found in North America but a 2010 study argues that the North American populations are a separate species, Vespula alascensis.
The common wasp is a eusocial vespid that builds its grey paper nest in or on a structure capable of supporting it. Underground, it often uses an abandoned mammal hole as a foundation for the site which is then enlarged by the workers. The foundress queen may also select a hollow tree, wall cavity or rock crevice for a nest site.
Adult workers of the common wasp measure about 12–17 mm (0.5–0.7 in) from head to abdomen, and have a mass of 84.1±19.0 mg, whereas the queen is about 20 mm (0.8 in) long. It has aposematic colours of black and yellow and is very similar to the German wasp (or European wasp, Vespula germanica) but seen head on, its face lacks the three black dots characteristic of that species. The identification of this species is sometimes difficult, because variations in the distinctive black anchor marking in the center of the face can be broken, so it appears similar to that of V.germanica. Black spots on the abdominal segments are another key feature for accurate identification. Furthermore, the genal area – the part of the head to which the jaws of an insect are attached – is usually broken by black (although sometimes narrowly).
Common wasps are colloquially known as "jaspers" in certain regions of England (such as Dorset and Lincolnshire, and more commonly the English Midlands), although it is not clear whether the etymology refers to the Latin name "vespa" or the striped abdomen, which echoes the striped mineral jasper.
Nest and life cycle
The nest is made from chewed wood fibres mixed with saliva. It has open cells and a cylindrical column known as a "petiole" attaching the nest to the substrate. The wasps produce a chemical which repels ants and secrete it around the base of the petiole to avoid ant predation. A solitary female queen starts the nest, building 20–30 cells before initial egg-laying. This phase begins in spring, depending on climatic conditions. She fashions a petiole and produces a single cell at the end of it. Six further cells are then added around this to produce the characteristic hexagonal shape of the nest cells. One egg is laid in each cell, and as it hatches, each larva holds itself in the vertical cell by pressing its body against the sides. The queen now divides her time between feeding the larvae on the juices of masticated insects and nest building. Once the larva reaches full size, it spins a cover over the cell, pupates and metamorphoses into an adult. When enough adult workers have emerged, they take up most of the colony’s foraging, brood care and nest maintenance. The queen, who is now fed by the workers, concentrates all her energy on reproduction. The spherical nest is built from the top downwards with successive combs of cells separated by petioles. The queen larvae, known as "gynes", are reared in larger cells in the lower combs. The finished nest may contain 5,000–10,000 individuals. To ensure that only the queen's eggs are reared to adulthood, female workers will remove worker-laid eggs in a process known as worker policing.
Each wasp colony includes one queen and a number of sterile workers. Colonies usually last only one year, with all but the queen dying at the onset of winter. New queens and males (drones) are produced towards the end of the summer, and after mating, the queen overwinters in a hole or other sheltered location, sometimes in buildings. Wasp nests are not reused from one year to the next, but in rare instances wasps have been seen to re-nest in the footprint of a removed nest or even begin building a new nest within an old nest. In the mild climate of New Zealand and Australia, a few of the colonies may survive the winter, although this is much more common with the German wasp.
The common wasp collects insects, including caterpillars, to feed to its larvae; the adults feed on nectar and sweet fruit. Common wasps will also attempt to invade honey bee nests to steal their honey; the bees will attempt to defend their nest by stinging the wasp to death.
Common wasps are subject to predation by the honey buzzard, which excavates the nests to obtain the larvae. The hoverfly Volucella pellucens and some of its relatives lay their eggs in a wasp nest, and their larvae feed on the wasps’ young and dead adults. Spiders are yet another predator of this and many other species. A species of parasitic mite, Varroa destructor jacobsoni, was found on larvae of this species in Poland in 1988.
Along with the German wasp and two species of Polistes (all invasive species), the common wasp is considered a pest species in New Zealand, as it competes with endemic species for food, such as insects and honeydew. In some South Island beech forests it is thought that densities of wasps are higher than anywhere else in the world. It is calculated that the total weight of common wasps in these places may exceed that of all birds.
The common wasp will, like bees, aggressively defend its nest. But unlike bees, which die after stinging, the common wasp can sting multiple times. This makes its sting viable for personal defense when away from the colony, and the common wasp is therefore more apt to sting. However, it will usually not sting without being provoked by sudden movement or other violent behavior.
Research indicates the wasps use odor to identify and attack rival wasps from other colonies, and nest odor frequently changes. V. vulgaris wasps have been observed aggressively competing with honey bees for the honeydew secreted by the scale insect Ultracoelostoma brittini in New Zealand's South Island black beech forests.
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