Earth Notes: Potter Wasps

Oct 18, 2017

Native Americans in the Southwest are renowned for their beautiful ceramics. And it just could be they were inspired by watching a local insect build a nest of clay.

Potter wasp
Credit Gary Alpert

The striking black-and-yellow potter wasp fashions a miniature jug-shaped pot for a nest. The insect, also called a mason wasp, first moistens clay with saliva and cuts out the soil with sharp mandibles. It repeatedly carries in clumps of the soft earth until it’s managed to finish a mandible-thrown pot—perfectly round and complete with a small lip and opening at the top. The base of the pot is often secured to stems and the underside of leaves. 

After the clay has dried, the female potter wasp lays an egg inside the wall of the empty pot. She then searches out a caterpillar and paralyzes it with the venom in her stinger. After depositing the caterpillar inside, she finds one more plug of clay and seals up the entrance.

The wasp’s larva remains inside the protective vessel, safely feeding on the moribund caterpillar. Once the larva develops into an adult, it bursts out the side of the clay pot and escapes.

How the wasps learned this artful craft is a question that remains to be answered.

Next week on Earth Notes, hear about a bee that excavates a nest in rock.