I’m all in favour of the ‘big five’ – the animals rather than the phrase, which is a rather irritating invention of the tourism industry. Lions, elephants, rhino – they are magnificent beasts. The only problem is the financial outlay if you want to view them in their natural surroundings, even if you live in Windhoek, let alone in Europe. You will be involved with several thousand dollars in 4x4 hire, lodge stays, designer safari outfits, sundowners, tips to game drive guides, and so on.
Something just as good, in my opinion, is available for study at virtually no cost and much closer to home, in fact, literally, in the comfort of your own garden, however small that may be. This is what I term the Little Five – the invertebrate creatures who live in close proximity to us, whether we like it or not: insects, spiders, snails, scorpions and worms, and we’ll include vertebrate but non-mammalian small amphibians and reptiles. Of course, they comprise over 95% of animal species anyway, hugely outnumbering the higher vertebrates. And you can define your own favourite five, since there is no official list.
I’ll be coming back, editor permitting, in later issues to extol the rest of my list, but I’d like to start with my current favourite animal, the paper wasp. These are scientifically the Polistinae, of the family Vespidae, from the great order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, bees and ants. They are social wasps, and there are no less than 1 100 species of them, scattered all over the tropical and temperate climates of the world.
They are majestic insects, two or three centimetres long, with elegantly sculpted bodies, long swept-back forewings which extend the whole length of the body, like a futuristic jet fighter, and bold, striking colouring. In Europe and America most species have the traditional black and yellow bee motif – in Namibia they are dark crimson, with a ‘radioactive’ yellow band around the abdomen and a black longitudinal bar running down the body.
They’re called paper wasps because their nests are formed of honeycombed cells made with regurgitated cellulose material: if you pick up an abandoned fallen nest it feels like the softest tissue. Alternatively, they are termed umbrella wasps because of the shape of the nest, but with the ‘handle’ of the umbrella – the pedicle which suspends the nest firmly from its point of support – on the wrong side.
The nest colony is founded by a group of females called, obviously, foundresses, who have over-wintered somewhere in a protected place like a hole in a tree. One of them becomes the queen – the others become resigned to their roles as worker/drones: constructing the nest and tending the eggs. Males don’t feature much, but in the insect world they never do. They are fit for only one thing, and when that duty is done, they are eaten or otherwise make themselves scarce.
The beams, and long overhanging eaves of our thatched roof, provide the ideal residential precinct for our wasps. They probably prefer the spot opposite our open bedroom window because of the cool breezes wafting from inside the house. Lying at ease on a window-seat sofa, on a Sunday afternoon, I can watch them depart and return on their reconnoitring and food-gathering expeditions. I admire their decentralised air-traffic control system – they never collide with each other and each lands precisely on what I presume is the correct hexagonal cell, which contains the larva to be fed. Of course dispute and scuffles break out between neighbours as in any high-density community, but they are short lived and no apparent damage is done.
All the members of the nest you see buzzing about their business are deactivated females – the drones. I say deactivated rather than sterile because in the event of the demise of the queen, one of them can take over, resume her fertility and start laying eggs to continue the life of the colony.
Actually a female wasp’s role and fate is not predetermined when she emerges from the larval cocoon – she is fertile and has the potential to act as a foundress, be a worker, become a queen from a worker or even revert back again.
While I clean the swimming pool, flocks of them buzz around me in a rather amiable protective cloud. They are anxious that I am not going to take all the water, of course. There are aggressive species of wasps, but the Polistinae are not among them. A moment’s thought will clarify that it is extremely non-cost-effective for a wasp to sting a human, since it is unlikely that the wasp will be able to drag the human back to the nest, mush it up and feed it to the larvae. Although there may indeed be a problem with ladies who wear high-powered floral-based perfumes – the paper wasps may mistake you for a flower and try to extract nectar from you, with unfortunate results. But it’s nothing personal.
Their food is nectar, vegetation, flies and caterpillars; and they are thus generally beneficial to gardeners. One of the Polistinae actually manufactures its own honey – the only non-bee species to do so. In turn, they are preyed upon by their fellow Hymenoptera, especially ants, who would devour the nest and all its contents, if they had the chance. The wasps secrete their own insecticide, which is spread around the approaches to the nest to deter the ants and other alien visitors.
As with most insects, each season must see the rearing of a new generation. Eggs must be laid, hatched, fed and survive the depredations of predators; the females must mature and be fertilised, so that when winter approaches they must hibernate; and at least a few must survive to begin all over again in the spring. They are starting work again and will hopefully have a successful year. I must spend more time lying on the sofa and see.
Acknowledgements for advice and information from: Dr W Jankowitz of the Polytechnic of Namibia, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University, Texas.