Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 27, 2008

A Pot ‘O Pillars

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:55 pm

  I discovered that there is at least one good thing about painting your house. It provides an excuse to take down the shutters and see what has been living behind them all these years. Our shutters are as fake as the day is long, but they still need to receive a real coat of the new trim color in order to retain their pseudo woodness.  As I released each one from its mooring and peeled it back, it was sorta like opening a Pandora’s Box of wonders. There among the jumble of old paper wasp nests, masses of spider webs, piles of bat droppings, and columns of mud dauber nests, I found one small architectural jewel plastered to the siding. It was the perfectly made mud nest of the Potter Wasp (see above).

  Solitary Wasps of the Eumenes clan are famous for making precise little clay pots for housing their young. The marble sized pots are not thrown on the wheel, but are built up layer by circular layer with loving doses of soil and spit. Female wasps gather mouthfuls of dry soil and macerate the mass into mortar with the addition of saliva. They carefully lay down the building material with a 9/16 inch foundation ring, gently curve up the sides and gradually restrict the neck of the vessel before finishing it off with a dramatic rim flare. 

  The finished structure looks more like a Sake Bottle (see here) than the maggot repository it is. There is a fascinating bit of artistry in the construction of this thing.  You’ll note the regular bumps, or globs, that give the surface an art pottery surface. There appears to be no other reason for this other than “that’s the way it’s always been done”- a familiar tradition among human potters. 

  This is a brood chamber, not an art statement, however. Once the container is done, it is filled with paralyzed caterpillars and sealed off.  There were 11 inchworm caterpillars packed into this one (heck, one more and there would have been a perfect foot of worms!).  I discovered this fact by accident as the delicate structure broke open when I attempted to remove it from the siding.  Take a look here, and you can see the caterpillar content laid out for viewing.

  At the time of its discovery, the pot was not yet full. The fact that the mouth of the jar remained open indicated that more ingredients were due (up to 14 caterpillars can be crammed into a single pot).  Oddly enough, the ‘pillers in this pile were only partially paralyzed by the female’s sting. They were helpless to be sure, but still thrashed around wildly when touched.  This brings up an interesting point about what would have been the last stage in the process when the egg was laid.

  Rather than laying her egg in the center of this active pile and risking injury to her charge, the female Potter Wasp takes an extraordinary step. She suspends her egg from a thread connected to the upper wall of the pot. In this way, the egg is kept away from the mass until hatching. Even upon hatching, the larvae can feed on the fresh caterpillar meat and then withdraw back up the safety line if the zombie ‘pillars start to get feisty. Eventually it gets big enough to handle them without risk and jumps into the fray.

  The story ended on this little pot of horrors when it busted open, but a few shutters down I found two more Potter Wasp creations. These were older structures that had successfully produced their wasps. Each had a large hole in the side where the newly emerged wasps chewed their way to freedom. While these two creatures came from behind forest green shutters, all the future potters around my house will enter the world from behind a burgundy façade.

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