Sculpting with mud

It’s amazing what you can find in a muddy ditch in a prairie.

Recent rains left standing water in this deep tire track.

Recent rains left standing water and exposed mud in this deep tire track.

There were quite a few insects gathering on the edge of the mud; on closer inspection, some were actually gathering the mud.

This paper wasp might have been going for a drink, got a little too close, and fell in.

This paper wasp might have been going for a drink, got a little too close, and fell in.  They chew plant fibers to construct their nests.

But this black and yellow mud daubers were scoping out the mud for nest construction.

But black and yellow mud daubers were scoping out the mud for nest construction.

Some dug into holes in the mud to get the right consistency.

Some dug into holes in the mud to get just the right consistency.

They rolled up perfect little balls of the clay, picked them up and carried them off to add to their nests.

They rolled up perfect little balls of the clay, picked them up and carried them off to add to their nests.

Sometimes standing on their heads to do it.

Sometimes standing on their heads to do it.

Black and yellow mud daubers are in the same family (Sphecidae) as the cicada killers (covered in earlier posts), but a different subfamily called the thread-waisted wasps — that’s the long skinny connection between thorax and abdomen, which can be yellow or black in these mud daubers.

Mud daubers are solitary wasps that build a multi-chambered cylindrical mud nest for their developing larvae.  Females select an overhanging structure (often man-made) to begin construction of the first cell, add a select number of paralyzed spider prey, lay a single egg in the cell, and then seal it with a layer of mud before beginning the next cell.  Then they move on, to start the process over again elsewhere.  The larvae are left to develop on their own without adult attendance.

The video below shows how the female brings in the spherical globule of mud in her mandibles and then pats it into place, forming each cell. (You can skip the ad after about 3 seconds.)

8 thoughts on “Sculpting with mud

  1. Paralyzed spider prey…..Hmm…. well, sounds like the start of the next abnormally large insect horror flick.

    The pictures of the wasp rolling a mud ball are great. Perhaps I would be more productive if I went out and played in the mud.

    • Yeah, we used to think that was really fun back in our pre-teen years. Seems like building with your hands (or arms/legs) is always good therapy.

  2. Fascinating post and photos–it takes a sharp eye to notice the wasps at work and to phtograph them. The video you attached was amazing–it was like watching a potter at work.

    • They are amazing, as are the mud nest-building swallows. And it’s all pre-programmed into their nervous system; no thinking required.

  3. The nest building is fascinating to watch and the mud is added just the way human potters add clay to their pots. I sometimes find little pots attached to the house wall and a wasp is sharing one of the bee hotel tubes but I don’t think it is closely related.

    • The mud daubers are native to North America,but apparently have been introduced other places in the world (not sure about Europe, but definitely in Asia). I am just amazed at how well insects and birds can fashion mud into a structure, with just their mouth parts.

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