Stellar jays, wasps and the circle of life

My wife, Cindie, loves to work in the yard. Last weekend as she cranked a water hose back into its storage box, the hose hung up. When she investigated, she opened the lid, discovered a wasp’s nest and an angry yellow insect stung her arm. She left the lid open, and the next day she discovered the wasp’s nest was gone.

We started talking about it, and she said a pair of stellar jays (AKA long-crested jay, mountain jay or pine jay) had built a nest in one of our trees. She said she’d seen one of the jays attack a wasp’s nest up in one of the eves of the house and carry it up on the roof.

And another nest on the other side of the house also had disappeared. With the one in the hose box, that makes three wasp’s nest that vanished, and she thought it was because of the marauding jay.

I’d never heard of such a thing, but it sounded like pretty clear anecdotal evidence to me. I called Lew Oring, an ornithologist friend of mine who lives up at Eagle Lake. He wasn’t home, so I started nosing around on the Internet. Sure enough, I came across a YouTube video of a jay eating wasp larva out of a nest. The bird even chased down a wasp that tried to escape and then went back to eating larvae. Son of a gun.

I got ahold of Lew the next day, and he said he’s never seen a jay attacking a wasp’s nest, but he knew about it.

Yes, the vermiform can be a food source — the jays will eat the larva. They will eat the queen and the wasps, too.

But it’s not always about food. Lew also said the jays will attack wasp nests if the insects are bothering their young. It’s springtime. Mating season. We have a nest in our yard. Hmmm, maybe it’s more than food?

But then Lew said there is great danger in all this for the jay. While the bird easily can out fly the wasps, a sting in the eye or in the meat of the leg can cause serious problems for the jay.

Everywhere else is mostly feathers.

Truth be told I don’t have any warm fuzzies about wasps. I believe every living being is one of God’s creatures that has a place in this universe, and I try to respect that. But before the jay got the nest in the hose box I was perfectly ready to head to Ace Hardware for some spray — especially since Cindie’s arm was so red and swollen. I didn’t want an instant replay.

Then Cindie said she saw a wasp fly under a tarp and into our woodpile. I instantly said uncover it and let our pesky jay take care of nest number four.

Here’s how it goes. The young wasp queens hibernate through the winter, and once the warm weather comes they go looking for a place to build a nest. Believe it or not, wasps can eat solid food, and the young queens pollinate plants much as bees do, and they live off the nectar. Adult wasps catch and chew up insects to feed to the larvae.

The young queen finds a place for a nest and begins creating cells for the larvae. As the number of wasps and larvae grows, so does the size of the nest. The queen wasp can lay as many as 100 eggs per day.

As summer ends, the queen will begin to lay both drone and queen eggs — as many as 1,000 or 1,500 queen eggs. The drones will not mate with queens from their own nest, ensuring genetic diversity. The newly fertilized queens look for a place to hibernate and begin the cycle all over again in the fall. The poor drones die. Sounds like last year’s crop of wasps must have been pretty darn successful.

Yep, those old circles of life keep turning — this time in circles I only recently discovered and never could have imagined.

Update

Cindie pulled the tarp off the woodpile after a friend told her to do it in the morning when it’s cool and the wasps are less active. When she came home from work that afternoon, the wasps and nest were gone — apparently the jay was still on duty.