A most bizarre encounter

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) perched on a rock (20080727_10231)

Despite being one of the larger paper wasp species, Polistes annularis seems doomed to lurk in the shadows of its more showy cousins the red wasp and the yellowjacket.  And while all three live in my area (along with a legion vast of other wasp species), P. annularis remains the most recognizable due to its colors and size.

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) perched on a rock while drinking from a small pond (20080727_10243)

Formidable would be one way to describe them.  Yet unlike some paper wasps who simply have a mean streak a mile long, this one reminds me of most wasp species by exhibiting the do-unto-others mentality: don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you.

Which leads me to a most bizarre encounter from a few days ago.

Along the trail leading from my home to White Rock Lake, I came across one of these wasps who seemed imminently distracted by a twig it was nibbling on with much fervor and passion.  Chewing up wood to make pulp to build a nest is a common sight with paper wasps, so nothing about the scene struck me as odd.

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) dismembering a northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata) (2009_07_26_027817)

I knew it was too dark for any good photos; still, I knelt a few meters/yards away and snapped a picture for my records (I always keep track of what I see even if I don’t use the images).

That’s when I noticed the twig was moving.

Only then did I realize it had legs.  And a head.  And eyes.  I also noticed not all the body parts were intact.

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) dismembering a northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata) (2009_07_26_027820)

The wasp was chewing on a northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata).  It seemed intent on dismembering the larger insect.  Already the flying critter had removed four out of six legs along with both antennae.  It then turned its attention to splitting open the thorax with its powerful mandibles.

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) dismembering a northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata)(2009_07_26_027822)

A closer look at the walking stick’s head made clear significant damage had been done by the wasp.  Most disturbing was the anthropomorphic look of horror on its face: mouth torn open such that it looked like a gasp of terror etched permanently by a slow and agonizing death.

Paper wasp (Polistes annularis) dismembering a northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata) (2009_07_26_027824)

When a passerby with a dog came too close, the wasp took flight and circled a nearby tree.  The walking stick lay alone for only a few moments before the wasp returned and continued its assault.

A dismembered northern walking stick (Diapheromera femorata) lying on the ground (2009_07_26_027827)

I can’t fathom why the wasp spent so much time attacking the walking stick.  Even if the nest had been threatened, would that warrant the wasp’s continued attention, especially by means of butchering the walking stick?  And when chased away by circumstance, why would the wasp return to continue its surgical strike?

Perhaps continued research on this phenomenon will yield clues as to the cause of this exceptionally intriguing and utterly strange behavior.  For now, though, I can only assume the wasp was really pissed off and translated that into a really bad day for the walking stick.

8 thoughts on “A most bizarre encounter”

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  2. That “gasp of terror” is indeed chilling. Poor thing. I’ve spent a few minutes trying to find the explanation to this behavior, but alas, I must get to work. I love the way your photo series tells the story, complete with mystery!

  3. Hey Jason, I love your Polistes annularis photos. I used to hunt this wasp when I was a kid and I have not seen this species in a very long time in Orlando.

    1. Thank you, Bill! Though this species is common at the lake where I live, it’s unusual in most of Dallas–so most people have never seen it in the city.

  4. The wasp was probably looking for a piece of wood to chew on, and then encountered the resistance of an unknown force. Like you trying to cut of a stick from a tree and then the tree attacks you, or tries to run away. The wasp carried out what seemed most safe, “dismantle” this strange creature. Better not take risks if you’re a wasp 😉

  5. Thanks Jason for posting this picture! My husband and I have A nest of these buggers in our garage. We live about a block from Whiterock Lake. We did not know exactly what kind they were till now. Thanks

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