Three Solitary Wasps

An Introduction to the Solitary Wasps

On the differences between Wasps and Bees

The main difference between Bees and Wasps is that Bees feed their larvae on 'honey' a mixture of pollen and nectar, whereas Wasps feed their larvae on meat, mostly paralysed arthropods (the exception that makes this rule are the Pollen Wasps Masarinae). The Wasp paralyses its prey rather than kills it, this is so that it will not rot before the larvae gets a chance to eat it. If you get to look at them under a microscope you will see another more taxonomically sound difference, i.e. Bees always have some, often many, 'plumose' or 'feather-like' hairs, these help in collecting pollen; Wasps always have only unbranched hairs like you and me.

Solitary wasps can unofficially be divided into those which use a nest and those that don't. Those that don't tend to paralyse their prey in relatively safe situations; i.e. Tiphia sp. which attack beetle larvae in the soil, as does Methocha ichnuemonides which preys on the larvae of Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidae) in their burrows. These non nest building wasps form a conceptual link between the Parasitica like the Ichnuemons which paralyze their prey where they find it before laying their eggs in it, and the those solitary wasps which do use a nest.



The general life style of a solitary wasp consists of a lone female mating and then preparing and provisioning one or more nests each containing one or more cells with food for her young. The egg hatches and the larvae consumes the supplied food without ever leaving the cell. After pupation the new adults emerge seek a mate after which the males being shorter lived in most species die and the females go on to restart the cycle.

Solitary wasps can be divided into three different general types depending on how they acquire their nests.

  1. Squatters most of the wood nesting species are squatters, and like the genera Passaloecus generally use holes that are already in existance, often those left behind by wood boring beetles.
  2. Builders these are wasps like the various species of Eumenes who create a nest from materials they have collected themselves, they are commonly known as Potter or Mason wasps.
  3. Diggers these as their name implies are wasps which dig a hole in the ground for their nests, these can again be conveniently divided into four general groups depending on how they dig their holes, though a given species may use 2 or 3 of the following methods.

Sphex ichneumoneus the American Great Golden Digger can take between 15 minutes and 4.5 hours to dig a nest hole depending the soil she is digging in.

Species of Ammophila have only one cell per nest, but most wasps have more than one cell per nest and many of them leave the nest open while they are foraging. This results in a lot of nest being parasitised by flies like Metopia argyrocephala or being usurped by kleptoparasites such as Velvet Ants (Mutilidae) which are actually wasps not ants, and which specialise in laying their eggs in the nests of other solitary bees and wasps. They also risk having their hard caught food items being pilfered by other solitary wasps, for instance Passaloecus corniger provisions it's nest with aphids stolen from the nest of other wasps working in the neighborhood such as Passaloecus insignis and P. gracilis.

Most Sphecids which prey on grasshoppers and Ammophilids which prey on caterpillars dig their nest before going out and catching the first prey item, but other Sphecids such as Prionyx atratum and Pompilids catch their prey item first and then dig the nest hole keeping a close eye on the prey item which they have cached nearby.

Though most species of Solitary Wasp are restricted (in terms of the prey they use) to one family, genera or species a group of small wasps in North America called Microbembix have been recorded making use of 10 different orders of insects as well as other Arthropods. They have even been observed to 'catch' already dead prey or even bits of an insect such as a grasshoppers leg, though to be fair they have also been observed rejecting prey items as unsuitable after they have caught them.

Wasps generally carry their prey under their bodies held in their legs and sometimes the antennae are held in the mandibles. In many species the prey is too large to be flown with, and female wasp walks back to nest. Wasps have been recorded walking as much as 200 metres with a single prey item. Some species are very specific in how they carry their prey, for instance species of Ammophila always carry their caterpillars held upside down in the mid legs. The prize for most unusual way of carrying its prey must go to the fly catching wasps of the genus Oxybelus such as Oxybelus sericeatus which carries its prey impaled on its sting.

Any arthropods that are reasonably common make suitable food items for Solitary Wasp larvae, in practice this means the major insect orders, and spiders are the most commonly used; the following table is a list of some of the orders used by different groups of Solitary Wasp, it is not an exhaustive list by any means.

Prey TypeSolitary Wasp Groups
Spiders = Arachnida Pompilidae
Spiders = ArachnidaTrypoxylon, Miscophus
Orthoptera = Grasshoppers & Crickets Sphecids i.e. Sphex, tachysphex
Homoptera = Shield-wing BugsAlysson, Crossocerus, Diodontus, Gorytes, Nitela, Passaloecus, Pemphredon, Psen, Psenulus, Rhopalum, Stigmus.
Heteroptera = Mixed-wing BugsAstata, Dinetus, Lindenius
Diptera = Flies Bembix, Crabro, Crossocerus, Ectemnius, Lindenius, Mellinus, Oxybelus, Rhopalum.
Coleoptera = Beetles Ancistoceris, Cerceris, Entomognathus, Gymnomerus, Methocha, Odynerus, Symmorphus, Tiphia.
Lepidoptera = Butterflies & Moths Ammophila, Ancistoderus, Eumenes, Euodynerus, Podalonia, Pseudepipona, Symmorphus.
Hymenoptera = Ants, Bees & Wasps Cerceris, Philanthus.

The Bee Wolf

BeeWolf at Nest Hole One of my favourite Wasps is the Bee Wolf (Philanthus triangulum), this amazing animal which is mostly yellow in colour and about the size of a Common Social Wasp digs a nest hole which is about 1 metre deep. The hole goes down into the sandy soil at about 30 degrees for the first part, then it straightens out and continues on horizontally. Branching off sideways from this main tunnel are the up to 34 shorter but still horizontal sub tunnels which contain the individual nest cells. Because Bee Wolves tend to dig their nests into steeply sloping banks or even cliff bases the final cells are often many metres under the ground. The female Bee Wolf does most of the digging with her front legs though she may use her mandibles to carry out small pebbles.

Philanthus triangulum is called the Bee Wolf because it feeds its larvae almost exclusively on Honey Bees (Apis mellifera). It usually catches them while they are visiting a flower but can also take them while they are in flight. The Bees are paralysed by being stung on the underside of the thorax through the membrane between the first and second segments. The Bee Wolf uses between 3 and 6 Honey Bees for every cell, thus a single Bee Wolf can account for well over 100 Honey Bees. However as the average Honey Bee hive contains between 20 and 50 thousand Honey Bees, it would take a awful lot of Bee Wolves to do any serious harm to the local Honey Bee population. After she has finished provisioning the cell she lays an egg in it and seals it up with soil. The Bee Wolf eggs hatch in 2-3 days and starts eating, it has a massive appetite and in about 2 weeks it has eaten all the prey its mother left it, it then spins itself a bottle shaped cocoon with what would be the the mouth of the bottle glued to the back of the cell. It has only recently been discovered that the Bee Wolf female tells its offspring which way to go when leaving the cell so it will have an easy journey to the surface. She does this by leaving a white substance on the ceiling of the cell on the side the opposite side of the cell to that on which the newly eclosed (having just emerged from a pupa) Bee Wolf should start digging into in order to reach the passage that leads to the main corridor. It has only just recently been discovered that this substance is made by special glands in her antennae. Bee Wolves are the only solitary hymenopteran that is known to give its offspring clues on which is the best way to get out of the nest like this. The Bee Wolf larvae recognises this substance and when it is making itself into a pupa it orientates itself so that it will be facing the right way to dig when it comes out of its pupa next Summer. Like many solitary Bees and Wasps the new generation never meet their parents, but start life off on their own with only their basic instincts to guide them. Fortunately their mothers leave them all they need to grow up into adults themselves who can keep the cycle going.



Picture Parade

Philanthus triangulum 1 A Bee Wolf inspecting her nest hole. 21K JPG
Philanthus triangulum 2 Another Bee Wolf at her nest hole. 15K JPG
Philanthus triangulum 3 A Bee Wolf approaches her nest hole. 13K JPG
Philanthus triangulum 4 A Bee Wolf arrives with a bee. 9K JPG
Cerceris arenaria 1 On the cliff base at Budleigh Salterton 23K JPG
Cerceris arenaria 2 At a hole entrance at Budleigh Salterton 10K JPG
Cerceris arenaria 3 Seeing off an intruder. 10K JPG
Ammophila sabulosa Angry because I put her in a flight cage to get the photo. 24K JPG

The following paintings were painted at or before the turn of the century and my favourites are those from a group of manuscripts smuggled out of Russia at the start of the revolution, the rest come from Saunders monograph on the Aculeates of Britain, as the artist is unfortunately not honoured in the book there is little I can do here but be grateful for his past efforts. I have cut and pasted the individual images after scanning in the relevant pages and I apologise for the background and contrast discrepancies this has caused, still the pictures are beautiful and I hope you enjoy them. All the pictures are in JPG format.

Plate 1. 76K Showing :- Cerapales maculatus, Typhia femorata, Spilomena troglodytes, Salius notatulus, Pemphredon lugubris, Pseudagenia punctum, Gorytes mystaceus, Gorytes quadrifasciatus, Mellinus arvensis, Philanthus triangulum, Cerceris arenaria, Cerceris ornata.
Plate 2. 84K Showing :- Trypoxylon figulus, Ammophila campestris, Ammophila sabulosa, Podalonia hirsuta, Mimesa bicolour, Astata boops, Pomphilus viaticus, Pomphilus unicolour, Pomphilus niger, Pomphilus cinctellus, Salius affinis, Salius fuscus.
Plate 3. 45K Showing :- Crabro cephalotes, Crabro cribrarius, Crabro clypeatus, Crabro palmarius, Crabro tibialis, Crabro leucostomas, Eumenes coarctata, Odynerus basilus
Plate 4. Showing :- Meria tartara, Meria tripunctata, Elis tartara, Myzine radialis.

Solitary Wasps on the Web

BWARS The UK Bees Ants and Wasps Recording Scheme.
Bees and Wasps social and solitary a good mix
Digger Wasps
Wasps in General
Cicada killer, and Digger wasps
Spider Wasps
Mud Dauber Wasps
Gallwasps and Organ-Pipe Wasps
Common Missouri Wasps and Bees

Book Reviews

Provisional Atlas of the aculeate Hymenoptera of Britain and Ireland Parts 1.and 2. , by Robin Edwards (Ed.)
The Pollen Wasps Ecology and natural history of the Masarinae, by Sarah K. Gess.
Naturalists' Handbook Vol. 3 Solitary Wasps by P. F. Yeo and S. Corbet (Very UK oriented)


Crompton, J. (1948). The Hunting Wasp, Collins,
Evans, H.E., and West Eberhard, M.J. (1973)The Wasps, David and Charles, Newton Abbot (England).
Fabre, J. H.(1915). The Hunting Wasps, Hodder and Stoughton,
Peckham, G.W. and Peckham E.G.,(1905). Wasps, Social and Solitary, Constable ,
Spoczynska. J.O.I. (1975) The World of the Wasp, Frederick Muller Ltd., London.

Return to the Hymenoptera front page



Have You Seen The Other Earthlife Web Chapters
The Home Page of the Fish The Birds Home Page The Insects Home Page The Mammals Home Page The Prokaryotes Home Page The Lichens Home Page

Index Gif               



This page was designed and written by Mr Gordon Ramel



Advertising Inquiries

         Disclaimer, Copyright and Privacy