Potters par excellence

Geetha Iyer

Humans fear them because they sting! Their slender abdomens are the dreams of waist conscious fashionable women! Farmers welcome them but take care to get out of their way. Stand still, they cannot see you, move and they will detect your presence! Wasps! Villains and heroes, feared or liked, by both the human society and the insect community. Despite the fearsome reputation, it must be said in their favour that not all wasps sting; those that do will not harm you unless you are interfering with their lives. You can safely stand still and watch them shape the clay – a technique that needs no potter’s wheel, no hands, no water to dabble, just their mouth parts to fashion out the pots and jugs like the expert potter.

Photo: Dr. Krishna Mohan
Wasps belong to the Order Hymenoptera (Hymen-memebrane; ptera-wings). Closely related to sawflies, ants and bees, which also belong to this order, entomologists believe that there are several species that are yet to be discovered and when that happens it is quite likely that Hymenoptera may claim the crown for being the largest order of insects; a title that is currently held by the Order Coleoptera whose members we know as beetles and weevils. With a few exceptions, the majority of the members of Hymenoptera are beneficial, helping to check the population of pests or pollinating flowers. Wasps come in all sizes – so small that you need a microscope to see them, to large – and exhibit lifestyles that would make your jaws drop in wonder! The story of the fig wasp could fill pages and pages of a naturalists’ diary. So unique is the association between the wasp and the fig that one would not be able to survive without the other! The fig and the fig wasp are a world unto each other and this is but one example of the several unique characters seen in the world of wasps. A lot can be said about wasps and their way of life, but the focus here is on the potters of the insect world.

Wasps may lead a solitary life or live in colonies. The solitary ones could be parasitic or free living. The homes that the free living ones build are for raising their young, never as a dwelling for themselves. Wasps that build nests using clay or lime are commonly referred to as potter wasps and mud dauber wasps. They are a cosmopolitan group, with differing habits, belonging to different families. The common feature is that they are all solitary and build using clay. It’s fascinating to see how they make their nests.

The author is a consultant for science and environment education. She can be reached at scopsowl@gmail.com.

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