HHistorians tell us that potters made the first clay vessels in China about 20,000 years ago. These containers were used for various purposes, such as transporting water, cooking and storing food.
Would you be surprised to learn that Mother Nature has her own potters and they have been creating urn and jug shaped vessels for tens of thousands of years? It’s true. It is also a fact that there is a good chance that some of these wild potters live in your garden.
These remarkable insects are pot wasps. Potter wasps are 1/2 to 5/8 “long. Their body color varies between black and blue, and they are adorned with yellow or white markings.
Eight species of pot wasps are found in North America and Canada. All of these insects build mud nests that look a lot like clay urns or short-necked pitchers. Many experts believe that Native Americans used potters wasp nests as inspiration for some of their pottery.
Female pot wasps create these strange structures from the ground near where they build their nests. Wasps start by collecting water droplets. The water is mixed with pieces of earth. They then infuse the muddy mixture with their own saliva. They even pick up tiny wood chips and add them to the mix. The six-legged craftsmen then fashion them into what appear to be miniature clay vessels. Remarkably, it takes about half a day for a potter wasp to complete their ship.
The potter wasp then flies in search of prey, such as caterpillars, beetle larvae and spiders. Once the wasp finds a suitable animal, it captures it and paralyzes it. The wasp then brings it back to its nest and stuffs the paralyzed animal into the pot.
A female potter wasp can store anywhere from one to a dozen unfortunate victims in a single container. Once she fills the container, she suspends a single egg on a thin filament above the stored food. The wasp then exits the chamber containing the egg and the stored food. Once outside, she closes the mouth of the jar, flies off to another spot, and repeats the process.
When the egg hatches, the young wasp immediately begins to feed on the abundant food provided by its mother. Depending on the species, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year for an adult potter wasp to finally cross the narrow neck to the top of the pot and fly away.
Potter wasp nests can be found in a variety of places. Potter wasps usually build their pots out of twigs and plant stems. However, they can also be attached to a wide range of man-made objects such as barns, sheds, houses, ladders, doorknobs, watering cans, and even playhouses.
I discovered a potter’s wasp nest under the back door of my SUV. The nest was on the outside of the weather stripping and could only be seen if the cover was lifted. It is not known how many miles the egg / young wasp traveled on the highway before emerging and flying away.
Recently my daughter found two nests attached to the leaves of an aloe growing in a potting plant sitting on her porch.
Although pot wasps are commonly seen in your gardens foraging and hunting for prey to deposit in their nests, they pose little threat to humans as they are not aggressive and rarely sting.
Interestingly, adult pot wasps feed on pollen. Therefore, when they feed on pollen or search for insects attracted to flowers, they serve as unintentional pollinators. In addition, the female’s propensity to hunt helps control pests.
Who would have thought that a wasp that most of us can’t identify leaves the amazing “pots” we find strewn around our gardens and is also one of our least appreciated beneficial insects?
Terry Johnson is the retired program director of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He wrote the ‘Monroe Outdoors’ news column for The Reporter for many years. His book “A Journey to Discovery” is available from The Reporter. Email him at [email protected]