Mystery Solved!

Reminder:  You can enlarge any of the photos in this blog by clicking on it.  Click again for a full-screen image.

I post images of paper wasps from time to time.  I can’t help myself, I find these wasps to be beautiful and I also find that their social lives and habits are fascinating.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve devoted posts to two local species that one sees commonly, Polistes comanchus navajoe, and Polistes flavus.

But, these are not the only species that one sees around here.  One other species that I see occasionally over at Sabino Canyon has been driving me crazy for months because, until this week, I couldn’t identify it.  It consists of a paper wasp that comes in two color morphs.  Most commonly, one sees it as a very large all-red wasp (some members of this species are red and yellow in color).  I see this species far less frequently than I see the other species.  However, it is much less timid than the others and I have found it relatively easy to photograph.

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I have spent hours looking at literature and images, trying to figure out what species this wasp could be and I drew nothing but blanks until last weekend.  I’ve come up with a few guesses, al of which turned out to be wrong.  On Saturday evening, however, I was doing volunteer work at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and was fortunate to attend a talk by Dr. Carl Olson, an entomologist on the faculty of the University of Arizona.  After the talk was over I had the opportunity to describe what I’d seen to him and ask him what he thought.  His response:  probably Polistes canadensis, a third species of paper wasp.

When I got home I went on line and all of the pieces fit together.  This insect is a neotropical species, common to Mexico and Central America. It is seen occasionally in southern Arizona and yes, it comes in several color morphs, including the two that I’ve observed over at Sabino Canyon.  Images of the wasp look exactly like the ones that I’ve taken and posted.

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So, mystery solved — probably.

As I said recently, among the things that fascinate me about paper wasps is that there are several species of them all coexisting at Sabino Canyon.  It’s not unusual to see wasps of three or even four species all foraging side by side.  I’d speculated that each of these species might occupy a particular small niche in Sabino Canyon’s unique ecosystems.  But, what also is possible is that these are species that occupy much larger territories and whose ranges just happen to overlap in this one particular place.  Such seems to be the case with Polistes canadensis, a Latin American species whose range barely overlaps those of other wasp species.  Whatever may be the explanation, I feel lucky to have something so beautiful living in my neighborhood.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, ISO 125, f11 @ 1/160.


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