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Hex, Lex, Tex and Rex are endearing names for my generic wasps pictured above. Social wasps belong to a group of insects called Vespids, known for leaving papier-mâché hexagons hanging from your eaves. The beauty of a hexagon is not just in the compound eye of the beholder. Of all geometric shapes that occur in nature, hexagons fit together perfectly with no wasted gaps, thus allowing for the most efficient use of space in pure mathematical terms. Social wasps build their nests from an amalgam of mud or wood mixed with saliva, which they fashion into hexagons with utmost economy.
When agitated or annoyed, wasps are also known for having a bad temper. Unlike the barbed and breakable stinger of bees, a ‘stand-your-ground’ wasp has a smooth stinger that can torment you repeatedly. The stinger is an adaptation of the egg-laying ovipositor, which means only female wasps possess the ability to sting.
Despite their infamous reputation - and before turning yourself into an anti-Vespid vigilante - consider the benefits of keeping wasps in your garden. Vespids are parasitoid insects that feed on garden pests such as caterpillars, grubs, and other marauding munchers of your flowers and shrubs. Some wasps even hunt black widow spiders. Thus, wasps are far more beneficial for your garden than pesticides, which indiscriminately kill the good bugs along with the bad and reap havoc on the environment.
In early spring, a solitary female emerges from hibernation, starts building a nest, and lays the first eggs. Workers - infertile females born from those eggs - will complete the nest and defend the colony. Male wasps, called drones, have no stinger and feed harmlessly on nectar. By late autumn as the weather cools and food becomes scarce, wasps die off leaving behind one or more daughter queens, which emerge in spring and start the cycle anew.
Marvels of resourcefulness and dedication, wasps remind me of our legends about angry gods who send great floods to destroy humankind. In the Eleventh Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, a story is told of Upnapishtim who is commanded by the gods to build an ark and save humanity:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
In a sense, queen wasps are the Upnapishtim of their kind. The life of a wasp is measured by a single season; yet Vespids have been buzzing around our planet for over 300 million years.