Hunting wasps at Lake Charlotte

The Houston area has some marvelous little parks. One of the best is in the Trinity River basin, just off I-10 east, not 30 miles from town. It’s basically a kayak put-in site for a huge bald cypress swamp in an area used intensively by native peoples and early European settlers. Our goals were different this time, so we brought no kayaks.  We had to drive back since we missed the turn-off to the park. It’s a virtually unmarked left through the fence just before a 90 degree bend in the Lake Charlottesville road, and that is off the Wallisville-Liberty road. We drove to the end of the empty road, and parked under cypresses by the kayak launch site.

We were hunting wasps, male wasps, still likely to be around waiting for a last female. We wanted a male because they are haploid and so have only one set of chromosomes. This makes sequencing their DNA easier, and we Wonderful Wasp Women (Amy Toth, Iowa; Seirian Sumner, London; Rita Cervo, Florence; and me) are on the genome trail. A single male would do, but a male and his brothers would be even better.

Last summer we saw tens of nests of the gold-banded paper wasp, Polistes annularis, hanging over Mac Bayou, a cut-off towards the Trinity River. We couldn’t imagine actually collecting the nests from a kayak so we thought we’d search first from shore. Actually, we could imagine kayak wasping, only too well, with screams, wasps flying around, kayaks overturned, gear lost in the water, and mud everywhere. Maybe next time, as it turns out. We had packed the car with a ladder, hard hats, and bee veils, gloves, zip shut bags of several sizes, pens and tags, close focus binoculars, and a cooler of ice for any collected wasps.

We walked around the water’s edge, looking across shallow Lake Charlotte, remembering all the mullets that jumped around us last time. I wished we had kayaks. It was open enough to walk around and look up for wasps, taking care not to trip on cypress knees of all sizes and heights. The cypresses dominated, but a few invasive chinese tallow were sneaking in. We stared and stared at the leafy shrubs, looking for wasps. We found none. But staying still encouraged other animals to go about their business. A Carolina chickadee landed nearby, then flew to within a meter in response to a spish sound. Dave spotted a pileated woodpecker drinking out of a rotted out tree knot hole. I heard something rustling, but didn’t spot it. Armadillo?

Still no wasps. What to do? A kettle of 27 black vultures twirled and circled high over Cedar Hill Park, pausing on their southward migration. More vultures, on the ground, in the trees, hopping clumsily from branch to branch, or attempting to get aloft. A black vulture with wings loosened lunged at another that landed too close on a bare branch over the lake. We thought there would be carrion on the ground where they were thickest, but we were wrong.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers slowly pounded the tree high over the car, then flew off, calling slowly. The calls speed up among our common woodpeckers with decreasing body size. Downy woodpeckers are shrill cacklers, red bellied a little slower, and the majestic pileated the slowest of all. They lack only a little size, and some white on the wing to be the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.

But we had not come to bird watch. It was time to move on. Polistes annularis is very patchy, and sometimes has hundreds of nests on a single cliff, or over a single river, and then none for miles. They do like water. Besides my old study site on Lake Travis, I’ve seen them just across the Sabine River in Louisiana, so maybe we should go there. Instead we went to another Wallisville Lake park, Trinity River Island Recreation Area. This is entirely a mowed grass and metal shelters type park, with overlooks of the marsh, and boat ramps.

Here we had a little more luck. A flowering bush (unknown kind of ornamental) was thick with insects. Bees sizzled from flower to flower, and Dave wondered if I’d ever caught bees by their wings. A praying mantis lurked under a lower leaf. A small spider had coated the upper surface of a leaf with some silk. And there were wasps. Brown and russet Polistes metricus, including a male, yellow Polistes exclamans, and on the wooden platform a Polistes bellicosus female still gathering wood. But no Polistes annularis. We ate our goat cheese and homemade bread, and went home, stopping at a country fruit and vegetable stand on the way for zucchini, onions, green beans, garlic, tomatoes, red potatoes, Louisiana yams, Texas grapefruit, peaches, and plums. Back on I-10 we passed the refineries and chemical plants that are a part of any trip towards the Gulf coast.

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This is Polistes metricus, at Brazos Bend State Park, but looks like Polistes annularis from this distance, so this is what we were searching for.

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This is what we had to drive past to get over the ship channel and out towards the Trinity River.

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We went towards Beaumont, where my aunt Angie and uncle Don lived many years ago.

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Crayfish towers in the St. Augustine grass at Cedar Hill Park

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Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) in the grass.

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Lovely Lake Charlotte, has native shell middens, once had a large settlement, ended by hurricanes.

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Surely there are wasps in back waters like this one.

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I fear Missouri won’t have palmettos.

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Polistes bellicosus at Trinity Island.

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Lovely mud dauber nests on the hurricane ties.

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Praying mantis, lying in wait for a bee.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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