8-14 July 2004
Installment #230---Visitor #

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In 2004, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are scheduled for Aug-Sep in North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia & Kentucky/Tennessee.
Next up: Land Between The Lakes on 6-8 August
(Click on the logo at left for details.)
If your group would like to host Hummingbird Mornings anywhere in the U.S. or Canada in 2004 or later, contact
Bill Hilton Jr.


Since early spring, we've been watching a colony of wasps building a nest in the eaves of the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center. The construction site is just above the sliding glass door that overlooks a small water garden--one of our prime bird-trapping areas. Back in late April one wasp was particularly active, recycling dead wood on the property by chewing it up and turning it into tiny spheres of paper. Unlike spitballs launched by generations of schoolchildren, these saliva-and-paper wads were destined to be fabricated into one little hexagonal chamber after another--the future repositories for the wasp's eggs, larvae, and pupae. Although the wasp never bothered us when we went out the door to fetch birds from traps, our hypersensitivity to insect stings made us a little edgy at having the nest right over our head. Nonetheless, tolerance prevailed and we simply decided to be careful during exiting and entering and did NOT knock down the nest. We're glad we let the industrious little insects live in peace for many reasons--not the least of which is that we've been able to observe lots of new behavior in the fascinating world of Paper Wasps.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The nest over the door started out in April when a single wasp anchored a small stalk to plastic siding in the eaves and then added cells one at a time. Paper Wasps (Polistes spp.)--of which there are about two dozen species in North America--all follow this process, sometimes ending with hundreds of cells in a large, umbrella-shaped nest a foot across. The social wasp family in which Paper Wasps are placed--the Vespidae--also includes Yellow Jackets (which typically build their paper nest below ground) and White-faced Hornets (whose large spherical or tear-shaped nests hang in trees and best go undisturbed). Although not easily seen in the accompanying photos of wasps with folded wings, Paper Wasps have a one-segmented waist connecting a stout thorax and elongate, terminally pointed abdomen; the antennae are straight in females (below) and hooked in males.

That first individual--apparently a Red Wasp, Polistes annularis--that began construction of the Hilton Pond nest was undoubtedly a queen that mated last fall and overwintered in some protected locale. She built several cells, laid an egg in each, and raised a first generation of offspring that then became workers. The queen looks essentially like other female wasps but dominates them through aggressive interactions, some of which may be too subtle for us human observers to notice or understand. A nest has its own "pecking order," with each wasp dominating all individuals beneath it in the hierarchy. If the queen dies, everybody moves up one notch, and the most aggressive female worker begins laying eggs. Never having mated, however, this top-ranking worker produces only infertile eggs that develop into males.

Typically, all first-generation wasps produced by the original queen are female workers that significantly increase nest-building productivity of the colony. The first part of the nest in our eaves--35 or so cells altogether--was dark gray, but subsequent sections have been tan-colored, probably because the newer generation of wasps has begun using different kinds of wood for paper-making. By mid-summer, it's likely that some recently constructed cells contain eggs that will develop into males or potential queens. After these males and "princesses" mate, the original queen and all workers and males die, with only the newly mated queens surviving the winter. These new queens will disperse next spring to establish their own colonies. Sometimes queen sisters work on the same nest, with one dominating the other. This may be insurance that allows a genetic line to survive, because if the primary queen dies her sister--who also mated the previous fall--assumes command and is able to lay fertile eggs.

As of this week, our Hilton Pond Paper wasp nest is being maintained by four workers (and a queen) that constantly inspect each cell, checking to eliminate nest parasites and other dangers. Most newer cells contain eggs (above), while others have small wasp larvae that have hatched in the past week or so. As is always the case, these fast-growing youngsters have healthy appetites, satiated by workers that fly out to find caterpillars that they chew into small pieces and offer to the young. Adults primarily dine on juice from rotten fruit or on nectar--which means they sometimes serve as pollinators--and also prey upon many common garden pests to feed the immature wasps, thus minimizing the need for chemicals in the backyard tomato patch. (HINT: Don't kill wasps; they are beneficial insects.)

Each older cell of the papier-mâché nest contains a fat, dark-headed wasp grub (above) that has no wiggle room. Eventually, the grub metamorphoses into a pupa, at which time the workers cover its cell with a light-colored dome. After a few weeks of maturation, the pupa emerges as an adult wasp ready to assume its designated role as a worker, male, or queen.

Although the wasp's stinger isn't visible in the photo below, we know full well from experience that an inch-long worker packs a powerful punch--one that can be repeated again and again because the hypodermic stinger is not barbed. Perched atop a ladder on the side deck, we were very grateful that the Paper Wasps at Hilton Pond Center seemed more interested in tending their nest than attacking us when we got not-quite-too-close-for-comfort with our tripod and 180mm macro lens.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds


8-14 July 2004

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--14
Tufted Titmouse--2
House Finch--2

* = New species for 2004

3 species
18 individuals

48 species
1,488 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
44,793 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
06/08/03--after 2nd year female

House Finch (1)
03/21/03--after 2nd year male

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--Hummingbird banders frequently get questions from the public such as "Are there fewer Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this year?" are "Are the hummers having a good breeding year?" Since answers to such questions are almost impossible to derive simply by observing, banders are fortunate in that--if they band in the same locations, devote equivalent amounts of time from year to year, and band for enough years--comparative results allow for more accurate conclusions. Folks in the Carolinas have been commenting more than usual that there aren't as many hummingbirds this year, but we're having a particularly good season at Hilton Pond Center. By Wednesday, 14 Jul we had banded a total of 52 RTHUs, the first time in 21 years to reach that plateau so early. (Previous early date for 50 RTHUs banded was 17 July in 1995 and 1998.) The 21-year average of banded RTHUs through 14 Jul at Hilton Pond is 34 birds, so we're at 153% of average. In other words--and we knock on wood--2004 is looking like a record year for banded RTHUs at Hilton Pond.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.