Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Masters of Mud: Auplopus Spider Wasps

The first image in this post is not of the insect I will be discussing today. That is because I am far more frequently asked what these little mud barrels are, and what makes them. Indeed, you are more apt to stumble upon these nests than you are to see their maker. While most spider wasps in the family Pompilidae dig burrows for their nests, or exploit pre-existing cavities, those in the genus Auplopus create free-standing mud cells.

I have few images of these wasps, and detest “stealing” images from others for my posts even though I give full credit when I do, so I hadn’t done an entry about Auplopus until now. It took a Facebook post by Eileen Miller to remind me that I was overdue to address them. Eileen was kind enough to share her own images in exchange for learning more about the wasps and their nests.

© Eileen Miller

There are ten recognized species of Auplopus in North America, but the genus is in dire need of revision. Collectively, the genus occurs across the entire continent. One species, A. carbonarius, is introduced from western Europe, and has been documented in New York and Michigan, but probably has a wider distribution in the U.S. than is currently known.

Several species are bright metallic blue-green, and the females at least are basically inseparable externally. Males can be identified by differences in the genitalia. Auplopus are small, averaging about 10 millimeters in length. Females have an oval spot on top of the abdomen near the tip called a “pygidial plate” that they use like a masonry trowel to manipulate mud pellets into segments of their mud nests. The female curls her abdomen beneath her during such work, so that the pygidial plate can contact the mud.

© Yurika Alexander via Bugguide.net Auplopus mellipes female

The nests are usually constructed inside pre-existing cavities in wood, or at least in sheltered niches such as under bark on standing trees, crevices in rock walls, or even inside the abandoned nests of other wasps like Sceliphron caementarium (Black and Yellow Mud Dauber), Trypoxylon politum (the Pipe Organ Mud Dauber), and paper wasps (Polistes spp.). The tiny barrel-shaped cells are roughly 15 millimeters in length and 7-10 millimeters wide, often stacked end-to-end, two to five per row.

Nest inside hole where a bolt used to be

The wasps appear to be mostly opportunistic hunters of spiders that do not spin webs.

Documented prey includes spiders from thirteen different families: Crab spiders (Thomisidae), jumping spiders (Salticidae), sac spiders (Clubionidae), ground sac spiders (Trachelas sp. in Corinnidae), ghost spiders (Anyphaenidae), longlegged sac spiders (Cheiracanthium sp. in Miturgidae), ground spiders (Gnaphosidae), nursery web spiders (Pisauridae) being the usual victims of North American Auplopus.

© Marie L. Schmidt via Bugguide.net Female wasp with spider prey

Adult or immature spiders may be taken, and the wasps usually amputate several, if not all, the legs of their prey. This allows the wasp to feed on the blood of the spider, but also facilitates easier transport of the victim over the ground. Presumably, more than one spider is placed in each mud cell before the female lays an egg on the last victim and then seals the cell.

© Eileen Miller, inside of cell showing pupa in cocoon

In at least one species, the emerging adult wasp regurgitates liquid to soften the mud cap on its cell, allowing it to more easily chew its way to freedom.

Auplopus seldom visit flowers, but can often be found around aphid colonies on honeyvine milkweed (Ampelamus albidus, Cynanchum leave), sunflower, and other plants. They feed on “honeydew,” the sweet liquid waste products that aphids secrete.

© Eileen Miller

Look for these little wasps from May to October, but especially July through September when they are most abundant. It should be noted that other Hymenoptera make very similar mud nests, particularly some of the Osmia mason bees, and some mason wasps (family Vespidae, subfamily Eumeninae). Auplopus are surprisingly well-studied insects, but information is scattered over articles in many different scientific journals and books.

Sources: Eiseman, Charley and Noah Charney. 2010. Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. 582 pp.
Evans, Howard E. and Carl M. Yoshimoto. 1962. “The Ecology and Nesting Behavior of the Pompilidae (Hymenoptera) of the Northeastern United States,” Misc. Publ. Entomol. Soc. Am. 3(3): 66-119.
Krombein, Karl V. 1967. Trap-nesting Wasps and Bees: Life Histories, Nests, and Associates. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press (Publication 4670). 570 pp.
Kurczewski, Frank E. 1989. “Observations on the Nesting Behavior of Auplopus caerulescens subcorticalis and Other Auplopodini (Hymenoptera: Pompilidae),” Gt. Lakes Entomol. 22(2): 71-74.
Kurczewski, Frank E. and Mark F. O’Brien. 1991. “Auplopus carbonarius, a Palearctic Spider Wasp, Extends its Range to Michigan (Hymenoptera: Pompilidae),” Gt. Lakes Entomol. 24(3): 185-186.
O/Neill, Kevin M. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History. Ithaca, New York: Comstock Publishing Associates (Cornell University Press). 406 pp.

11 comments:

  1. This is quite fascinating, I did not know that there are wasps who prey specifically upon spiders.

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  2. Great write-up! I've added a link to it to my Auplopus mollis photos from AZ in the UAIC flickr stream to keep it all together.

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  3. Thank you both for the compliments.

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  4. Thank you for doing the research and for posting all about insects.

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  5. Are these the ones that fill Allen bolt heads on bicycles?

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    1. I apologize, my mechanical knowledge is probably as good as your knowledge of wasps. I have no idea, but there are many solitary wasp species that use pre-existing cavities for nest sites.

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  6. I got stung by something that looks like this 2 times 3 days ago. It is very swollen, itchy, and hurts... should i be worried or go to the doctor to get it checked out? I haven't been able to find anything about stings from them.

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    1. Hi, Sabrina. Not to my knowledge are these "medically significant" insects; but, if you think your reaction is abnormal for *you*, then by all means you should see your physician. You could be acquiring sensitivity to insect venoms, but a doctor is the one who should make that assertion. Get well soon!

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  7. Hi Eric, thanks for this great information. I recently found a piece of firewood with a formation similar to the one shown in Eileen's first photo. The holes are not yet open so the pupa are likely still inside. You can see a photo on flickr if you are interested (photos/dalilas/32661095653 if the link doesn't stay): https://www.flickr.com/photos/dalilas/32661095653/ I didn't burn this piece of wood.

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    1. Oh, yes, those are Auplopus nests. Great find!

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