We all know when yellowjacket season rolls around, with pesky wasps that bother us on every picnic. You can usually chase them away easily, but they come back again and again. They are relatively innocuous when you’re trying to give them the brush-off, but don’t ever disturb one of their nests in the ground!
Western yellowjackets (Vespula pensylvanica) are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the bees and wasps. Other wasps that are common in our area are bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), bigger and fiercer than the yellowjackets and with a big turnip-shaped paper nest up in the trees; and introduced European paper wasps (Polistes dominula), with a much smaller paper nest with chambers open below.
All these species have in common a black and yellow or black and white banded abdomen. That coloration is common in wasps and bees and is thought to be aposematic (Greek ‘away sign’), a word used to denote a warning coloration. “Don’t mess with me” is a loose translation.
Some birds, for example kingbirds, are able to take stinging insects in their stride, catching them in flight and beating them to death, even squeezing out their stinger, but a lot of animals doubtless leave them alone because they pack such a punch at the end of their abdomen. The warning coloration assures that they are safe either because the predator species has a genetic memory of them or has tried to capture one previously and was stung by it, a much more immediate memory!
As these wasps move through our environment, relatively impervious to predation, other insects have benefitted by evolving coloration, shape, and even wing sound that mimic the wasps. Most of them in our area are flies (Diptera), especially hover flies of the family Syrphidae. Here are a few of them. They look very much like the wasps as they fly around, and even seasoned entomologists often have to look closely. I for one have grabbed what I thought was a fly from an insect net and been stung for my mistake.
By mimicking stinging wasps and bees, these so-called Batesian mimics (from Henry Bates, early student of this phenomenon) gain protection from predators, mostly birds, that mistake them for their models and leave them alone. It must work very well, as there are so many kinds of flies that mimic wasps. There are also grasshoppers, beetlees, moths, and other insects that do the same, especially in the tropics, where there are so many more species of insects and so many more birds that eat them.
A study done in Illinois that involved extensive collecting of model Hymenoptera and mimic Diptera showed that the mimics are common in the spring, when adult birds are present as predators, but virtually absent during the period in midsummer when young birds are fledging. Some of them appear again in fall. The authors speculated that the mimic flight seasons were adjusted to miss the time when young, naïve birds were everywhere, birds that wouldn’t know enough not to catch them!