South Africa has a number of enormous wasps and bees. In England we just have small mean garden wasps. As with just about all the wildlife here in South Africa, there are some bigger, brighter and more terrifying wasps than the home-grown versions.
The Builder: The Mud Dauber Wasp
Overnight tiny African mud huts appear in building crevices. They are neat and rounded with a perfect cylindrical entrance. I’m slightly ashamed to say, the first time I found one of these structures I had no idea what it was and prodded it at arm’s length with a skewer until it crumbled, revealing a quite gruesome assortment of spider corpses, each stored in its own individual tomb cell.
I eventually worked out that the mud huts were the work of industrious Mud Dauber Wasps (similar to Potter Wasps, but the Potters store flies rather than spiders in their nurseries). The spiders are snacks for their growing larvae and are (initially) not actually corpses. Paralysed by the wasps’ sting they stay fresher for longer. We all want the very best for our children, the Mud Dauber is no different in that regard.
A garden wasp in England is perhaps a centimetre long. These mud daubers are a good inch, perhaps more. Slender, with a defined hourglass shape and sinister long back legs that dangle down make them look even larger in flight. Their loud buzzing and bright markings are worrying, but once you realise they’re not interested in attacking you and will help to keep down the spider population, (yes PLEASE), they’re not so scary anymore.
The Carpenter: Not a Wasp, A Carpenter Bee
This beauty landed by our back door and I quickly snapped couple of pictures before she flew off. After unsuccessfully googling her, I found a group of Bug enthusiasts online who kindly identified her.
It turns out she was a “female Carpenter Bee, but not in good health”. So in fact not a wasp, but a busy bee. Apparently she doesn’t look perky (although I’m not sure what a perky bee would look like) and it’s unusual for her to just land and laze about in an open space.
Unlike yesterday’s industrious Mud Dauber Wasp who constructs smart little nests, the Carpenter bee is a little force of destruction tunnelling into wood to build theirs, although they don’t actually eat the wood, it’s just discarded. A tree or roof strut will do quite nicely.
With her hairy legs and shiny inky wings she must have been some 2 inches long. I didn’t want to get too close. However, my fear factor quickly dissipated when I found out that they are non aggressive and male bees (which are even larger) don’t actually have a stinger, which means we can legitimately classify the female carpenter bees as more ‘bad-ass’ than the males.
At a later date I accidentally shared an outdoor shower with this. It continued to eyeball through the window after I fled back indoors with its’ huge yellow bug eye.
The Ninja: A Gigantic Giant-Spider eating Wasp
One day the children were excited to see a giant spider (I think a rain spider) wrestling with a large unidentified bug in the garden. The bug overcame the much larger spider and then dragged its quarry across the lawn and into the undergrowth.
It turns out this was the work of the ninja-like Spider Wasp that is more often seen scuttling about the ground hunting for prey, than it is in flight. I can barely overpower a rain spider, but this mega wasp has cunning and stealth (who would think to look for a rampant giant wasp on the ground?) enabling it to do just that.
It’s not obvious wasp behaviour, so I’m very glad to now know otherwise as the Spider Wasp’s sting is supposed to be quite vicious. Not something you’d want step on, thankfully its neon orange markings make it helpfully visible.
It paralyses the spider with its sting and then hauls it off to its burrow to lay an egg on it. As with the Mud Dauber wasp the larvae hatches and eats the arachnid appetiser.
The Origami Expert: The Paper Wasp
These smallish brown wasps build a quite beautiful nest above our front door. They have quite a painful sting, so be warned should you come across a similar nest.
South African Wildlife
Choosing between the biters (spiders and snakes) and the stingers (wasps and bees), the stingers are slightly less intimidating. For starters they don’t tend to appear at night when I’m asleep and defenceless and The Builder and The Ninja are both effective spider deterrents. However, there are of course scorpions that sting and they tend to come out at night and scuttle about.
My respect for all things scuttling, flying, stinging and burrowing here in South Africa is growing and my fear of them is decreasing the more I learn. I now know that a widow spider would rather play dead than bite me, that menacing Mud Dauber wasps are pretty harmless and that lurid Melville Grass Koppies (more about them some other time) are only poisonous to pets that make the mistake of eating them.