It's Sunday and he's having Sunday dinner--after having Sunday breakfast and lunch and snacks in between, thank you.
He's on his way to becoming a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) butterfly.
A European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, circles, attacks, and the non-battle is over within seconds. The caterpillar is defenseless. The wasp is hungry. There is not much left.
Indeed, there isn't much left when European paper wasps descend on a Gulf Fritillary population. They eat the eggs, the caterpillars, the chrysalids, and the adults, carrying food back to their colony. Protein. Predators. Predators with a Purpose.
Do they attack adult butterflies? They do. We recently shared one of our images of a European paper wasp (EPW) attacking an adult Gulf Frit; it appears in the current edition of the University of Wyoming's Barnyards and Backyards. See PDF.
EPW is a relative newcomer to America. Native to the European and Asian continents, it was first discovered in the United States in the late 1970s and has spread throughout the country. It's often confused with the native yellowjacket. How can you easily distinguish them? The EPW's antennae are orange.
Entomologist Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University described the European paper wasp as a nuisance pest in a 2011 scientific article published in Southwestern Entomologist. In the abstract, he noted that it has "colonized much of Colorado during the past decade and has emerged as a dominant species of nuisance wasp. It is impacting many types of prey species, particularly larval Lepidoptera. However, in western Colorado it is also a common pest in fruit orchards and can be very damaging to ripening grapes, Vitis vinifera L.; sweet cherries, Prunus avium (L.) L.; and other thin-fleshed stone fruits. This latter habit is unusual for a Polistes species."
The EPW is considered by many as a beneficial insect, especially when it targets the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies, alfalfa butterflies and other pests. Butterfly enthusiasts are none too happy, though, when it preys upon the preferred butterflies, including monarchs, Western tiger swallowtails and Gulf Fritillaries.
Meanwhile, back at the Passiflora. There's a population explosion of Gulf Frits. 'Cats all over the place. 'Cats eating leaves, flowers and stems. it's a veritable meat market for wasps (and spiders, praying mantids and other predators). The drama continues...
Sometimes you just can't win for losing.
This morning a newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) began drying its damp wings, preparing for flight. It had just emerged from its chrysalis. Soon it would be off to do what Gulf Frits do: leave its host plant, the passionflower vine, and find a mate.
It was not to be.
A cunning praying mantis, camouflaged as a green stem, snared it, grasping it in its spiked forelegs. Then it did one praying mantids do. It bit off its head and proceeded to eat it.
Quick and easy prey, for sure. But the mantis was not alone. A European paper wasp, seeking a little free protein to take back to her colony, got into the act, circling the struggling butterfly and taking quick bites.
The wasp carefully evaded the mantid's head and spiked forelegs.
If it it had not, this it would have been a two-course dinner. Butterfly first, wasp second.
Mouse Productions filmed a battle between a praying mantis and a wasp back in 2013. The mantis won. See YouTube video.
You don't hear those two words often, but you'll hear them often from Amy Toth, who's hoping that the hashtag, #wasplove, will draw attention to the wonderful world of wasps.
Toth, known for her work on bee and wasp behavior,genomics, and evolution, is an assistant professor--and outspoken wasp lover--from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames.
She delivered a presentation on honey bees at the UC Davis Bee Symposium on May 9. Then on May 13, she discussed her research on wasps at a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar.
The Bee Symposium showcased a "lot of bee love," and she's hoping that the same love will apply to wasps.
Indeed, folks verbally attack these social insects daily on social media. "I hate them," they say. "What good are they?" To be honest, I've witnessed European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) attacking crippled Gulf Fritillary butterflies in our bee garden, and dismembering and carrying off bits of Gulf Frit caterpillars to feed their colony. Wasps are carnivores. Honey bees are vegetarians.
So, we asked Amy Toth to list what she loves about wasps.
She eagerly obliged!
1. They are pollinators
2. They contribute to biocontrol of lepidopteran pests in gardens and on decorative plants
3. They have been shown to carry yeasts to winemaking grapes that may be important contributors to the fermentation process and wonderful flavors in wine!
4. They are the only known insect (Polistes fuscatus) that can recognize each other as individuals by their faces.
5. They are devoted mothers that will dote on their young all day long for weeks, defending their families with fury.
6. Their social behavior, in my opinion, is the most human-like of any insect. They know each other as individuals, and are great cooperators overall, but there is an undercurrent of selfishness to their behavior, manifest in nearly constant passive-aggressive interactions between individuals.
7. They are artists. They make perfect hexagonal nest cells out of paper, which they make themselves out of tree bark + saliva.
8. They are extremely intelligent. They're predators, architects, good navigators, and great learners. Among insects, they have large brains, especially the mushroom bodies (learning/memory and cognition area of insect brain).
9. They are beautiful, complex, and fascinating creatures!
That's Amy Toth's amazing #wasplove list.
I'd like to add No. 10: They are extremely photogenic.
#wasplove! Think it will catch on?
Last weekend a little critter made its first-ever appearance in our family bee garden. It was neither a grand entrance nor a grand insect.
"A fly!" I thought, as I looked at its knoblike bristle or arista on the end of each antenna.
But its body--what little I could see of it before it winged out of there--definitely resembled a wasp. A Western yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica) or European paper wasp (Polistes dominula).
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, identified it as a syrphid fly, genus Ceriana, family Syrphidae.
Talented Davis photographer Allan Jones captured an excellent photo of Ceriana in 2012. A full body shot: head, thorax and abdomen! His excellent image (second one, below) shows the distinguishing characteristics: two wings (fly), not four wings (bees, wasps), as well as the arista (fly) and the spongelike mouthparts (fly).
BugGuide.Net posted some excellent images of Ceriana on its site. Class: Insecta. Order, Diptera. Family: Syrphidae: Genus: Ceriana.
Ceriana is a genus of wasp mimics. Basically, it's a syrphid fly, a pollinator. It's also known as a hover fly or flower fly as it hovers, helicopterlike, over flowers before drops down to forage.
Would-be predators, no doubt, avoid Ceriana because of its coloration. "Oops, don't mess with that! That's a wasp!"
Picnickers who don't know a faux wasp from a real one would probably run from it, or swat at it.
"It's definitely a good mimic and probably gets a lot of protection from that coloration," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
When you're trying to rear Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae), expect the expected: predators.
It doesn't take long for European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) to find the butterfly's host plant, the passionflower vine (Passsiflora) and prey. We've seen the wasps, with their long hind legs dangling, follow the butterflies as they flit from tendrils to leaves to lay their eggs. The wasps grab the tiny yellow eggs and squirming caterpillars and rip into chrysalids.
They'll attack adult butterflies, too, especially the crippled ones.
Then off they fly with bits of food--protein--for their colony. Wasps are carnivores (unlike their cousins, the honey bees, which are vegetarians).
The European paper wasp, so named because of its European origin, is relatively new to the United States. Scientists tell us that the P. dominula was not recorded in North America until 1981. P. dominula was first discovered in the United States in the late 1970s near Boston, Mass. This invasive species has since spread rapidly across the country. Entomologists worry that it is displacing the native species of Polistes wasps.
Have you ever seen these wasps attack other insects? Butterflies?
Last Sunday we were watching a crippled butterfly (no doubt crippled by a predator such as a bird or praying mantis) clinging to a Passiflora leaf as males tried unsuccessfully to mate with her. Eventually, the males all fluttered away and a European paper wasp patrolling the area zeroed in for the attack.
Like a hungry lion singling out a crippled gazelle from a stampeding herd, the European paper wasp knew just what to do.