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Large paper wasps – Namibia’s bush police

Avatar of inke inke - 31. March 2018 - Environment

A paper wasp with the characteristic yellow patches on both sides of the abdomen is cleaning its wings with the help of its hind legs and abdomen. In colloquial speech these wasps are referred to as the bush police.

Dirk Heinrich

Most Namibians, and also some of the visitors to our country, have had a painful encounter with the local bush police of the insect type. The large paper wasps (Belonogaster lateritia) are found in all the dry and arid parts of Namibia, i.e. the south and the central regions, but they are mainly active in summer. They grow to a length of just under two centimetres and know how to put up a fight. 

Sometimes these members of the social paper wasp family attack out of the blue – when you unwittingly pass their nest in a tree or shrub, under an overhanging rock or attached to a building. They seem to be particularly belligerent on cloudy, hot days and they are known to target people in dark clothes while those wearing subtle colours are spared. Nobody knows why the bush police gets so incensed by dark clothing. Some animals tolerate the insects with their distinct fighting spirit in close proximity. Sociable weavers are one example. Sometimes numerous wasp nests can be seen under a large sociable weaver nest.   

Other bird species, however, such as bee-eaters and honey buzzards, are the wasps’ biggest enemies.

After mating, a single female starts the nest by building the first brood cells from dry plant materials softened by chewing. The female also feeds her offspring and defends the nest. Later on the daughters help to increase the size of the nest, while others bring food (chewed caterpillars) or defend the nest. It can become as large as a fist and resembles honeycombs made of paper. Usually it is attached to a branch or overhang by just one stalk. At the end of summer the wasps stop breeding and leave their nest. In small groups, tightly packed together, wings folded along the abdomen, they spend the winter in the hollow of a tree, in rock crevices or cracks in a building. During that part of the year the bush police is not on duty. 

When the wasps are calmly busy at the nest, feeding the defenceless larvae in the brood cells or adding to the honeycomb-structure, they also keep their four wings folded along their abdomen. But as soon as they get agitated the wings are raised and in case of danger the perceived enemy is attacked without delay. Wasps, in contrast to bees, can sting several times – it’s a very painful experience. After being stung in the foot you may be unable to put on a shoe for a few days because of the swelling, and after being stung in the face you will resemble a professional boxer who has been in a rough fight. When the swelling subsides you will suffer from relentless itching for some time. If you are allergic you should see a doctor or carry your proven remedies with you.

This species of social paper wasp is called rooiby in Afrikaans, Rote Wespe in German, embozi in Oshiwambo, engongwa in Otjiherero and !gerub in Khoekhoegowab (Nama/Damara). 

New comment

2 comments

Jack Ratjindua Kambatuku

09. April 2018

Dr

As kid, I had have many bitter experiences with their painful stings (at times chasing you all the way even when you beat a retreat and make a beeline for it) while looking for edible gum on trees, collecting firewood or simply herding livestock.


Pieter

05. April 2018

Tell me about it! I have suffered this twice, and each time, despite the stinging itself being very painful, the enduring itch is far, far worse!


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