Yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons)

I am the official Bug Wrangler for our household. It’s a pretty great gig. I help my friends feel more at ease in our home, I interact with cool arthropods, and I save innocent creatures from a cruel and unusual demise by slipper. A real win-win-win. Now that we’re all stuck home in springtime, business is booming.

Yesterday, we propped our back door to let in the warm breeze and a yellow jacket zipped inside. He immediately whizzed up the stairs into my housemate’s bedroom.

And that’s when you call in the Bug Wrangler.

“Sarah?” Natasha rapped anxiously on my bedroom door. “There’s a bee in my room. Can you get it?” She whispered as if she was afraid the bee would hear us plotting and know we were coming.

I grabbed my trusty cup and paper and crept up the steps to the second floor. The yellow jacket was buzzing around the small slanted skylight above the stairwell.

“It’s actually a wasp,” I called down to Natasha, who was pacing at the bottom of the stairs. “A male. But don’t worry. I’ll get him.”

I waited for the wasp to land so I could swoop in and catch him. He buzzed a little longer before settling slightly lopsided against the window baseboard, which was just narrow enough that my cup wouldn’t lay flat over top. I watched and waited some more.

The wasp began rapidly rubbing his face. Over and over, he tugged his antennae. He scrubbed his large black eyes. He nibbled his front legs with his mandibles.

Entomologists have observed this kind of behavior from many insects. In all the literature I could find, they classify it as cleaning or grooming. Nature is a loud, filthy, dusty place. Insects need to maintain their sensory tools to stay sharp, much like me cleaning my glasses or swabbing my ears with a cue-tip. They polish the lenses of their compound eyes and comb fuzz out of the bristles of their antennae, all the better to see, feel, and taste their environment.

Maybe that was all the wasp was doing. He was dusting himself off so he could better evaluate the situation. Or maybe grooming is simply what wasps do in an idle moment. A reflex, nothing more.

But grooming doesn’t feel like the right word for his face scrubbing. His actions seemed anxious and fidgety, like how I play with my hair and massage my eyelids, cheeks, forehead, forearms, knees, everything when I’m worried. It isn’t particularly soothing. It’s just movement, an immediate outlet for my anxieties. I’m antsy. Or maybe I’m wasp-y. As I watched the little wasp rub his face, I was overcome with tenderness. I saw someone who was stressed and frustrated, even panicked. Someone confronting a world that was not what it appeared.

I realize that’s all terribly anthropomorphic, unscientific language. However, I believe it’s equally unscientific to deny insects the same behavioral complexities, more, the oddities we give ourselves because they seem ‘too human.’ How can we claim something as a uniquely human quality if we refuse to look for it elsewhere? There are multiple hypotheses to explain the wasp’s behavior. Why throw out one class of ideas just because it feels funny?

Watching the wasp reminded me of a classic experiment by Niko Tinbergen, one of the founders of behavioral ecology. Tinbergen followed female beewolf wasps (Philanthus triangulum) as they hummed in and out of their sandy burrows. To a human observer, the thousands of burrows dotting the dunes looked indistinguishable, yet somehow the females always knew exactly which little pile of earth was theirs. Tinbergen wanted to know how they did it, so he designed an elegantly simple experiment.

While the female was inside, he placed pine cones in a ring around her burrow. When she emerged, she hung in the air over the site, probably surprised by her new lawn decor. Then she flew off to hunt down supper for her hungry larvae. While she was gone, Tinbergen shifted the pine cones so they formed a circle adjacent to rather than on top of the burrow’s entrance. When the wasp returned, she made a beeline for the circle of pine cones, ignoring her original burrow entirely. Repeating this test several times with a series of females gave Tinbergen two key revelations about wasp behavior. First, wasps remember visual landmarks. Second, they use these landmarks to locate their burrows. Change their environment, and they follow what was previously familiar.

I wonder: as the female beewolf scrabbled in the sand searching for her home, did she also rub her face?

All day long, I hear the pinging of bumblebees ricocheting off our window screens. For highly visual insects like Hymenopterans, a window is like the ring of pine cones, a cruel trick. It looks like you should be able to pass right through! If they see a reflection in the glass, they must think: wow, more trees! More flowers! More space to explore- WHAM! Never mind. And if the window or doorway happens to be open, they end up in a situation like the unfortunate wasp in Natasha’s bedroom.

I imagine he saw the blue sky and the blooming dogwoods in our yard and thought he’d found the exit to this strange, cold, tasteless hollow. I don’t know if he realized he was trapped as he slumped on the windowsill rubbing his face. If I’d let him, he might have gone back to desperately bashing his head against the glass until he collapsed and died, utterly exhausted and still not understanding why he couldn’t reach the pretty trees.

Eventually, the wasp stopped rubbing and climbed back up onto the window, determined to try again. “It’s okay, little guy,” I cooed as I inched closer. Then, swoop! I clapped my trusty cup on top of him and slid my trusty paper underneath.

Natasha applauded as I carried him down the stairs and out the open door into our backyard. I settled on the ground and gently lifted the cup.

The wasp sat still on the paper a moment. Then he crawled steadily along the edge, poking everything with his antennae until he felt the familiar brush of soft grass. Finally, he leapt into the air and flew away.

He never once rubbed his face.

A challenge for curious readers: How could you know if the wasp was anxious? Design an experiment to test whether the wasp’s behavior was a response to anxiety or run-of-the-mill grooming. How would you set it up? What would you measure? I have some ideas, but I want you to devise your own! Gentle, non-destructive experiments only. Share in the comments or contact me directly. Let’s science like Tinbergen!

One response to “Yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons)”

  1. How about this? Two treatment are as follows. Follow individual wasps around and randomly assign each to one of the treatments.

    Treatment 1: follow the wasp for a random amount of time, then catch it under a glass and record all its behaviors for another 2 minutes and record all behaviors.

    Treatment 2: follow the wasp for at least 2 minutes, but the tracking ends after the wasps first bout of grooming. Immediately upon completing grooming, catch the wasp under a glass and record all its behaviors for 2 minutes.

    Prediction: If it’s simply grooming, the wasps should groom more in treatment 1 than 2. If it’s anxiety, the amount of grooming should be the same in the two treatments.


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