Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Give us your buzzes, your stings ....

Like many United States citizens, I'm descended from immigrants -- in my case, four grandparents who came here from two countries on four separate ships. So, to celebrate the Fourth of July, I thought I'd feature another set of immigrants. Like some of the most famous seventeenth-century European colonists, and also like my own grandfather circa 1900, they first landed in the Boston area and eventually left descendants in many parts of their new homeland.

I'm referring, of course, to Polistes dominulus, the European paper wasp. This species is native to Eurasia and especially common in Mediterranean Europe. The first travelers to the U.S. were spotted in the Boston area around 1978; they've probably since experienced multiple introductions, and are now all over the northern U.S., quite literally from sea to shining sea. The specimens above were photographed in a vent on the wall of an apartment complex here in Rochester, New York, but you can find them in Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, California, and at least a double handful of other states. They've also quite happily moved into several other nations that have hosted many human immigrants; P. dominulus populations are now established in southern Canada, and have also been found in Australia and Chile.

The long-term impact of P. dominulus on native species is still unknown. They're not particularly aggressive towards other wasps, but seem to be able to out-compete some of the local species for nest spaces and other resources that support paper wasp colonies. Various research groups in the U.S. are studying the invasion; P. dominulus has commonly been used as a subject for behavioral research in its native Europe, so behavioral and molecular ecologists on this side of the Atlantic can refer to a considerable body of published work to support ongoing research.

I'll undoubtedly return to P. dominulus in the future, but will close with a photo credit. My husband Rick took today's featured photo; he's had an unusual relationship with this species since the day five or six years ago when he beat a rug against a clothesline pole in the back yard of our (then) home in southwest Michigan. The hollow pole turned out to be full of nesting wasps; rather typically for P. dominulus, they checked him out slowly in mid-air, but did not sting him. (Note: Don't try this at home.) This occurred on Rick's birthday, which happens to be on Bastille Day. No one knows for sure where the source populations of the invasion are, so maybe I should make a whimsical bet on France. Maybe, by cutting Rick some slack, the wasps were simply practicing fraternity as well as liberty (on the wing!) and equality (workers closely resemble queens). As for the Fourth of July link -- well, the French Revolution had some roots in the one that took place here, and our flags are, after all, composed of the same colors. The wasps, though, seem much more inclined to give three cheers for the yellow, orange and black.

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