The recession has slowed housing starts, but builders of clay dwellings remain busy. Millions of clay homes are built this and every summer in Utah. These dwellings can disintegrate in a summer cloudburst, so you’ll find them beneath overhangs like rock cliffs, or under bridges and the eaves of your house.
These free-standing mud homes are built by a few dozen species of solitary bees and wasps. Among them is the mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, a big leggy wasp found throughout Utah. The female wasp constructs hollow clay units one at a time, each the dimensions of a pitted date. The mother mud dauber gathers the wet clay in pellets. At the nest site, she draws the pellet into a ribbon of clay which becomes the next arch of the tubular nest. While working the clay, she audibly buzzes her flight muscles. This vibration visibly liquefies the clay for a few seconds. This strengthens its bond, much as workers in concrete do using large vibrating probes.
The mother wasp then collects spiders, often plucking them straight from their webs after a pitched battle. She permanently paralyzes each spider using her venomous sting. The venom is not lethal. Rather, it is paralytic, keeping the spider alive and fresh but helplessly immobile, a gruesome spider buffet for her grub-like larva to eat. Each hollow nest is packed with a half dozen spiders, one of which receives her egg. In a few weeks time, the growing wasp larva finishes eating its buffet and pupates, becoming dormant for the winter.
Nest building and provisioning by these wasps is a complex result of heritable instincts tailored to local circumstances by learning. It is also a rare trait among insects, most of whom simply lay their eggs and leave. Through observation and manipulative experiments, students of animal behavior have investigated mud-building wasps for well over a century. If you have mud daubers around your home, grab a cool drink, pull up a chair, and enjoy watching their home-making labors.
This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society
“The Wasps”, Evans, Howard E. and Eberhard, Mary Jane West, 1970. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press. 265 p. illus. http://www.amazon.com/Wasps-Howard-Evans/dp/0715360604
“Bees, wasps, and ants : the indispensable role of Hymenoptera in gardens”, Grissell, Eric. 2010, 335 p. http://www.amazon.com/Bees-Wasps-Ants-Indispensable-Hymenoptera/dp/0881929883