Wonderful World of Wasp Nests

From the Collections posts

In the latest episode of Shelf Life, we introduced you to Alfred Kinsey’s amazing collection of gall wasp specimens, which are housed at the Museum. Gall wasps make their first homes in their namesake “galls,” growths on trees and other plants where mother gall wasps lay their eggs and new gall wasps gestate.

Wasp homes are among the most impressive structures in nature, so we asked Curator James Carpenter and Senior Scientific Assistant Christine LeBeau to show us some of the specimens in the Museum’s collection of the nests of social wasps.

 

This hornet's nest was collected in Rye Brook, NY. © AMNH/D. Finnin

This hornet's nest was collected in Rye Brook, NY.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Our gallery of wasp nests begins close to home, with this colorful nest created by a colony of bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata). Collected in nearby Rye Brook, NY, this is one of the largest nests in the Museum’s collections. The leaves on this specimen may look like they’ve been placed there, but the nest was actually built around a branch, leaves and all.

This nest was built by wasps in the genus Epinona. © AMNH/D. Finnin

This nest was built by wasps in the genus Epinona.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


No, that’s not an impressionist painting—it’s an example of the nest of the South American wasp in the genus Epinona. These shiny black wasps build their nests high in the tree canopy of the Amazon rainforest, where different shades of brown—created when the wasps building the nest chew up different kinds of plant matter and plaster them to the walls of the nest—can serve as a kind of camouflage, hiding the nest from predators.

Some wasps nets are painted, while others feature spikes like these. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Some wasps nets are painted, while others feature spikes like these.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


 

Sometimes, though, hiding is not the best defense. This nest, built by the South American species Polybia scutellaris, has a thick paper “carton” that’s hard to break through. Combine that with spikes to deter predators, and you’ve got a nest that is built to last. According to Dr. Carpenter, this one could have been occupied for as long as a decade.

In this example, you can see the combs of the wasp nest. © AMNH/D. Finnin

In this example, you can see the combs of the wasp nest.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Not all wasp nests, though, are so easy to defend. This nest, built by wasps in the genus Parachartergus, lost its paper-thin outer envelope prior to collection, offering an excellent glimpse of its inner structure.

Different building materials can bring color to wasp nests. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Different building materials can bring color to wasp nests.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


 

While wasps are known as predators, a few select species also produce honey. Some of the sweet stuff was stored in this nest, built by an unidentified species of  honey wasp and collected in French Guiana. The dark brown parts of the nest are likely made from chewed up tree bark, while the white parts are built from cotton fibers.

Brightly colored building material like this table cloth can result in neon wasp nests. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Brightly colored building material like this table cloth can result in neon wasp nests.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


 

Other wasps aren’t quite so picky about their building materials. That flexibility is demonstrated in this hot pink nest, crafted from fibers of the tablecloth where it was built. This nest was donated to the Museum’s collection after being found in a local backyard.

Not all wasps build the paper-like nests like these. Some solitary species, for instance, create pottery-like homes using mud. But the diversity and beauty of these nests, which can serve as cradle, larder, and home for generations of insects, is undeniable.

To learn more about the Museum’s collections, check out the web series Shelf Life.