Thankful for wasps
By Margot Fedoruk
Kat Shantikat of Gabriola Island lives with her black cat in a quaint house tucked along a network of forest trails. She enjoys daily hikes through the second-growth forest. On one of her walks, she found her first wasp nest.
“I notice stuff and pick it up,” she says.
Shantikat once saw another artist use wasp nest paper and it never left her. She was inspired to cover a small side table with the thin papery material, propelling her into a long journey of creativity.
She started by covering anything that wasn’t nailed down. First, it was tiny wooden treasure boxes, then small wooden horses.
She now makes human- and cat-shaped decorative masks, using glue and a toothpick to affix the thin bark-like material onto simple forms. She adorns the masks with bristles from old brooms to mimic whiskers, or applies slices of the internal honeycomb as a kind of fretwork. She also fashions small masks for children.
When Shantikat runs out of nest material for her sought after creations, her customers bring her their found nests and the tales that come with them.
“I’ve got stories of ones as big as rolled-up carpets. Those come from the attics of old homes in the big cities,” Shantikat says. “A customer told me a story of a nest in New Zealand that was so huge that a man could pass through the opening.”
Wasps in Canada are not quite so ambitious. Here, nests grow to a maximum of approximately two-thirds of a metre in length.
To create the fibrous paper material for their nest, wasps chew broken-down wood with their mandibles to mash it into a pulp with their saliva. The thin wispy paper is a reflection of what they eat; apparently, wasps will eat anything—even candy wrappers.
The beehive honeycomb shape inside all wasp nests is created to nurture the larvae. The wasps die off in winter, except for the mated queens. Nests are no longer required, so they are abandoned. The queen hibernates underground or in wood until the spring, when she emerges to eat tree sap and begin the nest-building cycle again.
Shantikat uses paper from German Yellow Jacket and Bald-faced wasps, who make the familiar round or football-shaped orbs that are often seen hanging from branches from trees. Oddly, Paper Wasps’ nests are not suitable for Shantikat’s artwork because they do not have the same film encasing the nest.
Gabriola artist and writer Sheila Norgate first met Shantikat at Gabriola Vegeteers, a group of vegans and animal-advocates. “Her voice is authentic, coming from something deep inside her, and her work is amazing,” she says. “She has taken something that we would normally dismiss and uses it. She’s an ecological visionary.”
Shantikat believes that wasps serve a fundamental purpose. “The creatures we often fear have a very real and important role that we as humans have been slow to understand,“ she says. Wasps, for example, are great for biological pest control; for every pest species, such as caterpillars, flies, stink bugs, or aphids, there is at least one wasp species that eats it or uses it as a host for its larvae. A small colony of wasps can eat thousands of caterpillars over one season. They eat dead animals, too. In turn, wasps serve as food for spiders, birds, and small mammals.
And honey bees are not the only pollinators. While wasps don’t have legs with hair on them, as bees do, they still drink nectar from flowers and transfer pollen. “We have had seasons without pollination from bees in our communities,” Shantikat notes. “We should be damn thankful for the wasps.”
After a long winter of living alone and working on her art, Shantikat enjoys the interaction of the community markets that normally begin in spring (though not this year). She has that sociability in common with wasps, who build their nests, care for their young, and defend their queen together. That’s where the similarities end, though.
“Wasps are gentler,” she claims.
The next time you see a wasp nest on your property, think twice before destroying it or calling an exterminator. Whatever you do, don’t use pesticides, because targeting what you may consider a pest will also affect other beneficial insects like lady beetles and butterflies. To repel wasps naturally around your home, plant marigolds, citronella, lemongrass, or eucalyptus in pots around your deck or along pathways. When you do encounter them, stay calm. Wasps are typically only aggressive to defend their nest. They are movement-sensitive, though, so give them a wide berth and don’t swat at them.
And if you’d like to increase food for our insect pollinators, plant goldenrod and aster in safe areas away from walkways and pets. As Shantikat says, “We have to learn to share the space.”
Top photo: Margot Fedoruk
Another fan of wasps’ nests: Oklahoma’s “Hornet Boy”