A honey bee, KIA. Moments earlier she was sipping nectar from the flowering oregano in the boxes on our deck. Then, out of nowhere, a bolt of yellow-and-black lightning caught her broadside and sent her tumbling to the boards below. She gyrated across the wooden surface for a few minutes, trying desperately to right herself and become airborne. But the force of the blow not only dislocated her right wing, it must also have broken her back. She died within two minutes.
I turned my attention to the assailant, a stocky brute of a thing that was patrolling the flower boxes. A yellow-jacket, I decided, but not one of your garden-variety, western specimens – much more compact and heavier of build. Perhaps one of the European varieties that are relatively new to north America, but are becoming widespread in the Pacific Northwest – Paravespula germanica?
I watched this character at work for several days and was tremendously impressed by how relentless and aggressive it turned out to be. It is easy to spot because, unlike its more common North American cousins, it tucks its legs while flying. This habit, along with its stocky build, makes it look a lot like a bumble bee in flight. It is, however, much faster and much more maneuverable than most of the other flying insects that visit the boxes from time to time.
Its entire raison d’etre appeared to be (1) drive off any flying insect that was not of its own species, and (2) mate with any wasp of its own species that stopped off in the flower boxes for a sip of nectar. I am not sure what species-recognition methods it employed to determine foe from femme – probably auditor in most cases, but perhaps the females were sending out pheromone signals as well. At any rate, whenever an interloper appeared, the wasp would instantly attack, flinging itself full force against its foe. (It was just such a maneuver that downed the honey bee.) If the attack was unsuccessful the first time, the wasp would instantly attack again – and again and again, if necessary. Inevitably it proved victorious, regardless of the relative size of the foe.
The mating behavior was only slightly less brutal and every bit as relentless. When a female stopped by to sip nectar the wasp would immediately begin to stalk her. When a positive ID had been made, and when a clear lane between the two would open up, the wasp would pounce on the female and pin her in place on the flowers. Mating took anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds. When the business was finished, the wasp would take off on patrol again, and the female would go back to sipping nectar pretty much as if nothing had happened. If the wasp encountered the same female again during his patrol, he would simply pass her by, showing little or no interest.
After the attacks/matings, or after long periods of patrolling, the wasp would quickly take on nectar from several flowers and then settle down on a leaf to rest and groom.
At one point I could not resist the temptation to capture a couple of these creatures for closer examination. Accordingly, I loaded a spray bottle with water and a little dish-washing detergent and shot down a mating couple. Once I had them in a container I put them in the refrigerator for awhile (about 30 minutes) until they were essentially comatose. Then I shot this picture:
My original intention was to turn the pair loose once I was finished with the photos. But something in my technique was flawed – fatally so for the wasps. I’m sorry to say, while both were alive when I put them into the refrigerator (about half an hour), neither survived for more than a couple more minutes after I took them out. If someone knows a better non-lethal capture method, please drop me a note.