When I was young, I spent summers working on Cletus Zenk’s farm in Michigan baling hay, laying tile, painting fences, “fittin’ up” barns and savoring long, heavy lunches prepared by Clete’s wife, Pat. After one of Pat’s more memorable efforts, I rested my head against the shady side of an aluminum shed and dozed off until a painful, vibratory buzzing similar to that of a dentist’s drill jarred me back to consciousness.
Startled, I jumped up and poked my head through the doorway to see what was making the noise. On the other side of the thin aluminum, directly behind where my head had been, a delicate mud tube hugged the wall and joined three others that were more lightly-colored. It was an artistic display of small-scale masonry. The buzzing came from within one of the tubes. I bent down to look just as a shiny, bluish, white-footed wasp came out to meet me. For a split-second it danced in the air inches from my face, legs dangling—apparently studying me—and then it was gone.
It was a mud-dauber. It took me aback at first, but these harmless wasps and their mud-loving kin have fascinated me ever since.
Nest building of any kind is uncommon in the insect world. Most insects (butterflies, moths, many flies, many aquatic insects, many beetles and others) deposit eggs without much preparation or protection on plants, on leaf litter, on the soil, in the water or elsewhere. The young are left to fend for themselves. Other insects (katydids, cicadas, some beetles, parasitic wasps and others) give their young a bit of a head start by depositing eggs in plant tissues, rotten wood, in the soil and in living hosts.
Most nest-making insects, on the other hand, put considerable effort into selecting and building nest sites, renovating existing cavities or creating new ones. Also, they either passively or actively provide food and protection to their offspring. This kind of care and preparation increases the next generation’s chances of survival.
Missouri’s nest-making insects include many wasps, as well as most bees, ants and termites. In nearly all cases, the females build the nests and provide for the young. Most are “excavators,” digging sometimes elaborate tunnels, galleries and cells in the ground or in rotten wood. Certain wasps and bees, however, are like many species of birds in that they locate, collect and carry nesting materials to their nest site, creating a structure where previously