The Structure Of A Social Wasp Nest

Wasps truly are wonderful and fascinating creatures.  A social wasp nest colony is an incredible superorganism, consisting of thousands of interdependent, industrious wasp individuals, all serving the common good of the colony. 

The nests they create are architectural masterpieces of hexagonal cells, painstakingly made from shavings of wood or leaf, and are, in my view, every bit as amazing in structure as the honey combs created by honey bees (although of course, they don't contain honey).

What do wasp nests look like?

Fortunately, I have received many photographs over the years which I am able to share with you now.

A fully formed, grey ball shaped wasp nest attached to a deck overhang.A fully formed wasp nest on a deck overhang.

I received a wonderful email from Deidre Shannon in Northern Ireland, along with a range of superb photographs. 

Out walking in the forest, she had come across pieces of wasp nest – sure enough, up above on a tree branch, there was a hanging ball – the rest of the remains of the wasp nest.

Below is a picture of a segment of the wasp nest collected by Deidre.  You can clearly see the extraordinary symmetry and preciseness of the hexagon-shaped cells. 

Segment of the nest found by Deirdre, showing the papery structure of the hexagonal nest cells that look a bit like honey combsDeidre found segments of a wasp nest. Here is a segment of the nest showing the structure of the hexagonal nest cells.

Having gathered up the pieces of nest, Deidre took them home to photograph in advance of donating them to a school nature table.  I was thrilled to learn of this – I remember how much I loved and felt inspired by our school nature table, one that I would contribute to on a regular basis.  

Deidre also sent the photographs to me along with questions about the nest. I was of course pleased to answer, and I’m grateful to Deidre for allowing me to share these pictures on my site.  I’m also pleased to share my response to Deidre with you here.

Wonderful wasps

Below is a picture of the nest in situ.  The photograph is a little dark having been taken in the shadow of a tall tree, nevertheless, you can see that the nest is a kind of ball shape hanging from the tree branch.

Wasp nest hanging from a tree branch.Wasp nest hanging from a tree branch.

I can't be 100% sure (I don’t have any pictures of the wasps), as to the species, but it's a paper wasp.  They will make their nests either as hanging 'ball-type' shapes typically from tree branches or eaves of buildings.

The nest cells constructed by wasps look grey and papery, yet they have structure, and the cells are symmetrical and constructed with preciseness in the shape of hexagons, like wax honeycomb cells.You can clearly see the extraordinary symmetry and preciseness of the hexagon cells.

So how is the wasp nest made?

In short, it’s made by the precise layering of tiny pieces of chewed up wood.  This process is started by the queen wasp and continued by the workers.

All the 'architectural artwork' you are seeing is a result of the wasps sticking together the little pieces of chewed up wood, layered together to form the cells.  

Layers of hexagonal cells are stuck together with spaces in between them that wasps can walk between.Layers of hexagonal cells are stuck together with spaces in between them. This space is almost like a 'gangway' or corridor, where wasps can move between the walls of hexagonal cells.

When the hexagonal cells are constructed, they are stuck together a bit like plates with column supports, with a space in between.  This space is almost like a 'gangway' or corridor, where wasps can move between the layers of hexagonal cells.  Around this structure is an outer covering that creates the ball type shape you see in the earlier picture.

Along with the queen, all of the worker wasps have a part in building this masterpiece.  The hexagons are the cells where each individual wasp egg is laid, and develops until it emerges as a fully grown adult wasp.

View of the wasp nest showing greyish layers

The social wasp life cycle and building of the nest

To expand further, it’s also worth putting the nest building in to context with the life cycle of the fascinating wasp.  

It starts with a queen, who emerges from her winter snooze in spring (having mated the previous year prior to hibernating).  The wasp queen gets to work gathering teeny tiny shavings of wood that she chews to make a pulp, and makes into the first few perfectly formed, hexagon-shaped cells.

In each of the cells, she lays an egg and seals up the cells.  She continues with this process until the first eggs develop into larvae, pupate, then emerge as adults.  As soon as the young wasps are mature enough to leave the nest, off they go to forage for food for the remaining larvae back at the nest.

In addition to feeding the larvae, the worker wasps also continue where the queen left off with nest construction, so they are now responsible for building the rest of the nest, whilst the queen focuses on egg laying.

What do wasps eat?

An interesting point here is that the worker wasps bring back other insects and insect larvae for the 'baby wasp' larvae to eat, but the adult wasp workers themselves don't eat the same thing.  

Instead, the worker wasps actually feed from a sweet substance the wasp larvae secrete.  So, workers feed wasp larvae, wasp larvae feed adult wasps. 

(Later, as you'll see, worker wasps resort to finding sugar foods from elsewhere).

Wasp foraging on raspberry flower - side viewWasp foraging on raspberry flower.

What next?

The wasp larvae back at the nest develop further: they spin cocoons and pupate, eventually emerging as workers, and so it continues.

Later, the queen will stop laying eggs that will turn into
female worker wasps - she now switches to producing males and new queens.

By this time, the colony will be at around its peak, with thousands of worker wasps already out of the nest.  At some point, there will no longer be any wasp larvae - or insufficient larvae to actually feed the adult wasps with their sugary secretions.  

The end of the wasp colony

The photos taken by Deidre will be from a colony coming to
the end of its life.  At this stage, bits of hanging nest may begin to disintegrate and fall off, revealing the wonderful intricate egg cell chambers inside.  

Eventually, the whole colony will die apart from the new queens - they feed, mate, then hibernate until the next year to ensure future generations of wasps.


Wasps are beneficial

Wasps really are beneficial, being pollinators - and taking crops
pests that eat human foods.  I think they deserve more recognition for their beneficial role.  Read more about wasp pollination.

Avoiding wasp stings

When the colony is at its peak, people may find them intimidating at this time, especially if the wasps are interested in their fizzy drinks, but the key is not to wave arms about.

They are defensive stingers, so if they feel threatened by your arm wafting, they are more likely to sting.  I move calmly away, and the key is, don't drink fizzy drinks and eat fruit near wasps at this time of the year (peak colony time).  Early in the year in spring, you'll find them less troublesome, but I think they deserve a little more tolerance later in the year after all their hard work.

If you are concerned about wasps around your home, you could try hanging a Waspinator (above) at the beginning of the season (early spring).  They look a bit like wasp nests to queens looking for a place to build their own.  Being territorial, the queen will avoid starting up a nest too close to other wasps.