Polistes Flavus In The Restroom

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This past July was unbearably hot and uncharacteristically dry.  Tucson saw seemingly endless days of wilting heat and no rain.  The weather had its effect on the wildlife.  For much of the past month I’ve had difficulty finding subjects to photograph because most of the fauna has sought cover from the heat.

Last week I was over at Sabino Canyon one morning and having no success at all.  The heat was overpowering.  In near-desperation I decided to check out the interior of one of the canyon’s restrooms.  The restrooms are simple structures — brick shelters with toilets and a sink — that have open doorways.  They work fine but they are quite exposed to the elements.  However, as exposed as they are, they’re still cooler and quite a bit moister than the exterior and, so, wildlife occasionally seeks shelter in their interiors.

I ducked my head into one and saw a small paper wasp nest on a wall above a toilet.  A pair of paper wasps was busily tending to the nest.  I quickly realized that these were Polistes flavus, a species of paper wasp whose nests I’d never photographed, so I decided to make some images.

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At first these big paper wasps ignored me.  But, after a minute or so, they both turned and stared at me.

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I was standing only a couple of feet from the nest and my immediate reaction was to wonder whether I was about to be stung.  Paper wasps are surprisingly timid when they are away from their nests.  Indeed, they usually fly off when I approach them out in the field.  But, it’s an entirely different story when they are on their nests.  Moreover, Polistes flavus has a reputation for having a particularly nasty sting, so I definitely was concerned about provoking these two.

However, and after a few seconds, one of the wasps turned her back on me and went back to work while the other remained on guard.  I concluded that these two had decided that, although I needed to be watched, I wasn’t close enough to provoke a defensive reaction.

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I continued photographing them for several more minutes and we parted in peace.

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I find paper wasps to be among the more alert and responsive insects that I photograph.  They are extremely aware of what’s going on around them.  They are not aggressive.  They don’t sting out of malice or for the fun of it.  But, they will sting in self-defense and they will defend their nests ferociously.  One needs to be able to read these wasps’ behavior when approaching a nest. So far, I’ve not been stung by one of these wasps but I don’t want to press my luck too much.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, camera and lens supported by monopod, M setting, ISO 160, f13 @ 1/160.

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