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I was delighted the other day to get a few images of a paper wasp, Polistes comanchus navajoe, one of four or five species of paper wasps that inhabit Sabino Canyon.
These are among the largest paper wasps that we see locally, and certainly, among the shyest. Getting good photos of this species proves to be very difficult. The comanchus wasps tend to be extremely timid. Generally, if one senses the presence of a human, it will simply fly off.
This one was in a rare cooperative mood. I watched as she foraged actively on the stems of a dead plant. Most likely she was looking for small invertebrates — insects, spiders, or scorpions, that she could capture and bring back to her nest as food for the nest’s larvae.
She paid little attention to me. The capper was when she allowed me to take her portrait.
I’ve often wondered why four or five species of paper wasp live side by side at Sabino Canyon. They seem to occupy the same niche, they have superficially identical lifestyles, and yet, there’s this obvious proliferation of species. Why?
One possibility is that our desert may turn out to be a crossroads where several species that have evolved elsewhere, but which manifest similar characteristics, meet. It may simply be the case of the desert being suitable to multiple species of wasp, each very similar to the others, who find themselves wandering into the same space at about the same time.
Or, there may actually be some fairly profound differences between the species that enable each species to take advantage of some specific feature of the desert’s environment that is not apparent to us. Nest-building behavior is one example. Most paper wasps nest under the eaves of buildings or on sheltered branches and stems of plants. But, that’s not the case with comanchus. On several occasions I’ve noticed this wasp nesting in crevices among the rocks. That preference in nesting behavior takes advantage of the fact that there are a lot of rocks in Sabino Canyon that are filled with crevices and cracks. So, comanchus has carved out a lifestyle for itself in our desert that exploits a unique feature of the local ecosystem.
Photos taken with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlight, M setting, ISO 125, f11 @ 1/160.