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What Happens When You Give Wasps Colored Paper

What Happens When You Give Wasps Colored Paper

With the holidays upon us, decorating is on most everyone’s mind. But no matter how skilled you are at making the Star of David out of pipecleaners or shoving cloves into oranges for Christmas pomanders, all of your festive efforts pale in comparison to what our invertebrate neighbors can do. Just look at what wasps accomplish with a bit of colored paper.

In an at-home experiment, Mattia Menchetti gave a captive colony of European paper wasps some building materials. Starting with yellow, Menchetti provided the social insects with different colored papers until the wasps had constructed a rainbow-colored nest for their squiggly little offspring.

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This isn’t the first time humans have altered an insect-created color scheme. In 2012 beekeepers in France were shocked to find their bees creating blue and green honey. It turned out that the insects were collecting sugar from the shells of M&Ms at a waste processing plant nearby. But even without human interference, social insects can bring a bit of color into their creations. The nests of mud dauber wasps, for example, come in a variety of shades based upon the color of whatever sediment is nearby.

And these structures aren’t just pretty. They’re durable, too. That’s at least partly because a protein in the saliva of European paper wasps helps give their nests a waterproofed seal. It’s so effective, in fact, that scientists have actually cloned this protein to coat the outside of a special “bio drone” made of various parts from living things. Unfortunately our spit isn’t nearly so amazing, so it’s probably best to refrain from licking paper and throwing it against the wall as part of your holiday traditions.

IMAGE: Mattia Menchetti

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