Common wasp

Common wasp

The common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, is a wasp found in much of the Northern Hemisphere, and introduced to Australia and New Zealand. It is a eusocial vespid, which builds its grey paper nest underground, often using an abandoned mammal hole as a start 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.

Identification

The common wasp is 17–20 mm long, and has aposematic colours of black and yellow. It is very similar to the German wasp, but seen head on, its face lacks the three black dots characteristic of that species. It can also be distinguished by a lack of black dots on its back; these are located further up and form part of the black rings on each of the abdomen's six segments. The Ash Borer (a moth) mimics the common wasp's aposematic colouration.

Common wasps are colloquially known as "jaspers" in southern England and 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 petiole attaching the nest to the substrate. The wasps produce a chemical which repels ants and secrete it around the base of this petiole in order 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. The spherical nest is built up from layers of cells.

Once the larvae have hatched as workers, they take up most of the colony’s foraging, brood care and nest maintenance. A finished nest may contain 5,000–10,000 individuals.

Each wasp colony includes one queen and a number of sterile workers. Colonies usually last only one year, all but the queen dying at the onset of winter. However, in the mild climate of New Zealand and Australia, a few of the colonies survive the winter, although this is much more common with the German wasp. 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 indoors.

Wasp nests are not reused from one year to the next.

This common and widespread 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 attempt to defend their nest by stinging the wasp to death.

Common wasp nests are subject to predation by the Honey Buzzard, which excavates them to obtain the larva. As the wasps have a tendency to build nests near houses, they are not necessarily defensive of their hive and can still be approached and watched without immediate attack.
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.

Pest status

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.

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