FEBRUARY
2011

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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02-24-11

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Some Insects Build Homes


Famous French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre wrote thousands of pages devoted to insect biology. Much of his work was published in 1921, six years after his death, in a tome called "Fabre's Book of Insects." Chapter XII of that book is entitled "The Cricket," with a subtitle of "The Householder."

Fabre states in this and other works that the field cricket's claim to fame is the ability to sing and to construct a home. Fabre writes, "You seem well satisfied with your home and with your music."

To be sure, other writers have noted the propensity of field crickets to have a home. In the "Insect Play," the Brothers Capek portray a newly married cricket couple in search of a house. Children's writer Rae Oetting depicts an insect infatuated with keeping a tidy home in "The Orderly Cricket."

According to Fabre, constructing a suitable dwelling has been perfected by only three: "the cricket, the rabbit, and finally by man." Fabre may have ignored other homebuilders among animals. For instance, I have seen some squirrel nests that might qualify as homes. What about bird nests? The structures of our fine-feathered friends are certainly used as a home for a portion of the year.

There are also insects other than crickets that construct nests. And some insect nests certainly require more "work" than the burrow, which becomes the abode of a cricket. Social insects especially build elaborate homes.

Most termites have extensive underground tunnels that go unnoticed by humans. But the mound-building termites of Africa produce impressive above ground structures, sometimes as much as 30 feet in height. These concrete-like mounds are constructed of a mixture of soil and insect secretions. The soil used in the mixture comes from the underground tunnels of the nest. The structure is such that air flow through the tunnels helps cool the entire nest.

Ant colonies also have an underground tunnel structure and sometimes a visible mound that is generally called an anthill. Anthills are loose structures consisting of soil removed from tunnels and discarded food items from the ants.

Honey bees construct their home out of wax. The wax is produced by glands in the abdomen of the bee and is then chewed and deposited in such a way that combs are produced. Honey bees use combs to store food and as a nursery where newly hatched bees are housed and fed. Honey bees produce their comb nests in the open in tropical regions or nest in cavities, such as hollow trees, in temperate climates.

bald face hornet nest
Baldfaced hornet nest

Social wasps also live in colonies and construct their nests of a combination of chewed wood and saliva. The material is a paper-like substance called carton. This is why some of these wasps are called paper wasps. The carton is used to construct the comb structure, which - like in honey bees - is used as a rearing chamber for developing wasps. In the case of baldfaced hornets the carton is also used to construct the outside of the nest. Such nests are the basketball-sized structures that can be seen hanging from tree limbs in the fall. Yellowjackets build similar nests, but they are underground so we do not often see the structures. Both of these insects feed their young on insect prey and a sugary material from fruits and an occasional human beverage such as soda.

Most wasps and bees are not social insects. These so-called solitary insects build individual nests. Among the solitary nest-building insects is the carpenter bee. This bee, which resembles a bumble bee, chews out a nest cavity in wood. It then lays eggs and brings in pollen as a food supply for the larvae.

Organpipe Mud Dauber nest
Organ-pipe mud dauber nest

Wasps called mud daubers are also solitary insects. Mud daubers are appropriately named because their home-construction material is made by mixing saliva and soil. The wasps feed their young either spiders or captured insects, such as leaf hoppers or caterpillars.

Now I know that Jean Henri Fabre devoted his life to the study of insects. I also know that naturalists and entomologists hold him in high esteem for his volumes of material popularizing insects. But when it comes to claiming that crickets are the only insects to build a home, I think he is overlooking a few hundred species of termites, ants, bees and wasps that are homebuilders all!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox