Longer and skinnier than yellowjackets, paper wasps are distinguished by their back legs, which hang down when they fly like a “pair of pants,” said Megan Asche, an entomology Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University. There are a number of paper wasp species native to particular areas of the United States, as well as an invasive one, a European variety that has spread nationwide since its arrival in the 1970s.
Paper wasps have complex social lives. While some colonies are founded by one wasp, many start out with a few queens, who brawl to establish dominance. The winner lays most of the eggs, and the others shoulder most of the foraging, maintenance and child care.
Elizabeth Tibbetts, a biologist at the University of Michigan who studies paper wasp behavior, is investigating how the insects form these hierarchies. She has found that Northern paper wasps can recognize one another, thanks to distinct markings on their faces.
More recently, Dr. Tibbetts found that Northern paper wasps can also “keep track of a social network of interaction,” she said: Even if they haven’t fought a particular queen, they have an idea of her strength from watching her fight others and will treat her accordingly. “You have to be pretty smart to be able to do that,” she said.
The males have their own rituals. Each fall, male European paper wasps in the Southern United States gather in huge swarms at the tallest point they can find to wait for potential mates. This could be a high-rise building, a granary or an amusement park ride. On military bases or at airports, it’s often an air traffic control tower.
Male wasps can’t sting. But this behavior is understandably distressing to people who witness it, including those working inside the control towers. “They really freak people out,” Ms. Asche said.
So Ms. Asche, whose research is funded by a grant from the United States Air Force, is also doing behavioral studies, testing whether the wasps can learn to associate a particular scent with a reward. (If they can, the scent could be used to trap them or to lure them away.) In the lab, without a home to defend or larvae to raise, they are “a pleasure to work with,” she said, and spend most days lounging in the sun “like little tiny cats.”