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Illustration is by Diego LaCamara, 9, Santa Monica Montessori School
People can learn a lot about their own societies by understanding how other creatures' societies work. This is true even for insects like the several species of paper wasps found in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Aviva Liebert who studies these wasps says, "Their society balances cooperation and conflict." She tells of wasps who work together to build a home and defend and care for the offspring in their nests. Interestingly, like ants and honey bees, paper wasp males don't do any of the work.
Paper wasp nests usually hang from a single stem and have the shape of an upside-down umbrella. The wasps collect plant and wood fibers and mix them with their saliva. Then they chew the mixture until, like paper mache, it can be formed into the thin cells of a nest. Paper wasp nests, unlike other wasp species, are a single open comb where you can see all the adults on the nest and the eggs and offspring in the nest cells
Though their bodies and nests are smaller and they don't zoom around as quickly, it is easy to mistake paper wasps for the more aggressive yellow jackets. Because of their similarities they often get a bad rap as dangerous beasts. But for the most part they do not harm people unless they or their nests are threatened. If stung, most people will experience temporary pain and swelling. However, if a person is allergic, he or she needs to be extra careful.
Gardens actually profit from the paper wasps that buzz around in them. They prey on plant and leaf eating caterpillars and other insects. And then they in turn serve as food for birds, spiders, ants, mice, raccoons, and other animals
If you were studying paper wasps, what do you think you could learn about your society?
Carol Felixson is director of education/community outreach for UCLA's Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve and Mathias Botanical Garden. To learn more about kids and nature, and UCLA's environmental education programs, go to nrs.ucop.edu/reserves/stunt.html, www.botgard.ucla.edu