Black-and-white animals are always attention-getters, and that goes for insects, too. Among the more conspicuous of those is the “Four-toothed Mason Wasp,” Monobia quadridens. This member of the family Vespidae, subfamily Eumeninae, is commonly seen at flowers during the summer and fall over most of the eastern U.S.
The common name of Monobia quadridens is somewhat puzzling, and I am not at all certain that it is “official.” It has also been called the “Carpenter Wasp,” and simply “mason wasp.”
This species ranges from southern Ontario and the entire eastern U.S. west to Kansas, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. It is also recorded in northern Mexico. Another species, Monobia texana, exists in Arizona and Texas.
The adult wasps are most often seen on flowers like goldenrod and thoroughwort. Males are easily distinguished from females by the big white spot on their face (females have entirely black faces). When not sipping nectar, the females are looking for nesting sites or hunting for caterpillar prey.
These are solitary insects, and each female selects her own nest location. Much of the time they utilize abandoned tunnels originally bored by the Eastern Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa virginica. Check for such nests along the edge of the roof of your own home. Monobia quadridens has also been observed to evict mason bees (Osmia sp.) from wood borings, killing the bee eggs, larvae, and pupae in the process (Byers, 1972). Abandoned nests of the Black and Yellow Mud Dauber may also be used by M. quadridens. Rarely, the old burrows of ground-nesting bees are used.
Male M. quadridens on sumac flowers
Once she selects a suitable nest cavity, the female wasp goes about hunting for prey. Considering the large size of the wasp, the caterpillars it hunts are rather small: Primarily leafrollers like the Sweetgum Leafroller, Sciota uvinella (family Pyralidae, subfamily Phycitinae); the Dimorphic Macalla Moth, Epipaschia superatalis and Maple Webworm Moth, Pococera asperatella (Pyralidae: Epipaschiinae); the Grape Leaf-folder, Desmia funeralis (Crambidae: Pyraustinae); Schlaeger’s Fruitworm Moth, Antaeotricha schlaegeri (Elachistidae: Stenomatinae); Psilocorsis sp. (Amphisbatidae); Platynota spp. (Tortricidae); and unidentified caterpillars in the family Gelechiidae.
Each caterpillar is stung into paralysis and flown back to the nest. Several caterpillars are stuffed into the bottom of the nest tunnel, and a single egg laid there. The female then collects a mud ball which she fashions into a curtain that seals off that compartment. She will leave a small empty “room” between that cell and the next one along the length of the tunnel, repeating the process for as many cells she can comfortably create. Once filled, the nest tunnel is sealed with a final plug of mud. The empty rooms, called “intercalary cells,” are thought to confuse parasites into thinking that nobody is home.
So, the sequence in a given nest, from the bottom up is brood cell, intercalary cell (empty), brood cell, intercalary cell, and so on, with a final intercalary cell nearest to the nest closure. This last empty cell is called a “vestibular cell.” There are generally less than five brood cells per nest.
Each female wasp may create more than one nest, as long as she is physically able to do so. Inside the nest, each egg takes about two days to hatch. The larva then begins consuming its larder of caterpillars. It takes an average of 4-8 days to finish eating before preparing for pupation.
The wasp larvae do not spin cocoons, but do secrete some kind of “varnish” that they apply over the interior walls of their cells in the course of one to three days. Each larva enters the inactive pre-pupal stage about five days after it finishes feeding. About three days later, the larva pupates (in summer generations; it may overwinter as a pre-pupa later in the year). Ten to twenty-one days elapse before an adult wasp emerges (again, for the summer generation). Males take less time to metamorphose than females. The eclosed (emerged) adult wasp then lingers inside its nest cell for another 2-3 days while its exoskeleton hardens and it is able to chew its way through the mud partition(s) to freedom.
Not all make it, of course. Some orient themselves the wrong way during the pre-pupal stage and are not able to turn around inside their cells once they emerge as adults. Others are victimized by parasites. Mites (Tortonia quadridens and Monbiocarus quadridens), may take a toll, even though they are thought to be scavengers that feed on the remains of the caterpillar prey inside the cells. The larval stage of the bee fly Anthrax aterrimus feeds as an external parasite on the pre-pupal or pupal wasp. Larvae of Amobia erythrura, a “satellite fly” in the family Sarcophagidae, eat the caterpillars stored for the wasp larva, essentially starving it to death. Melittobia chalybii are tiny parasitic wasps in the family Eulophidae that lay their eggs in the larva of the host. This includes Monobia quadridens.
My good friend Joe Cohelo made a nice little video about these wasps. He includes some quality still images at the end. Much remains to be learned about this wasp despite previous studies, and your own observations, videos, and images could help increase our collective knowledge. Personally, I like the idea that these mason wasps can get to leaf-rolling pests even when chemical applications can’t easily penetrate the caterpillars’ refuges. It just goes to show that nature has its checks and balances, and sometimes we should let them operate on their own schedule.
Sources: Buck, Matthias, Stephen A. Marshall, and David K.B. Cheung. 2008. “Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region,” Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 5: 492 pp. (PDF version).
Byers, George W. 1972. “Competitive Supersedure by Monobia quadridens in Nests of Osmia lignaria,” J Kans Entomol Soc 45(2): 235-238.
Krombein, Karl V. 1967. Trap-nesting Wasps and Bees: Life Histories, Nests, and Associates. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press. 570 pp.
Krombein, Karl V., et al. 1979. Catalog of Hymenoptera in America North of Mexico Vol.2 Apocrita (Aculeata). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp. 1199-2209.