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Learn to Live Like a Wasp at the Natural History Museum

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The beginnings of a replica of a yellow jacket nest on the Ross Terrace the American Museum of Natural History. The beginnings of a replica of a yellow jacket nest on the Ross Terrace the American Museum of Natural History. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC)

This week, insect-lovers can learn to live like wasps at the American Museum of Natural History. A nearly 15-foot-tall replica of a yellow jacket nest is being constructed of cardboard, wood and aluminum on the museum's Arthur Ross Terrace. It will be completed by Friday.

The Ross Terrace nest combines elements of the nest structure and behavioral patterns of the common wasp and the European or German wasp. Both are known as yellow jackets in the U.S.

Wasp expert Dr. James Carpenter, who is also a curator in the museum’s invertebrate zoology division, said on Wednesday that yellow jacket nests were intricate and beautiful objects.

"They're built by this colony of insects, which, you know, each of them has a brain about the size of a pinhead," he said. "It's an impressive feat of animal engineering."

The hexagonal cells that will make up the American Museum of Natural History's replica yellow jacket nest.

He added that wasps were critical to the natural ecosystem because they eat other insects.

"If you're so lucky to have a yellow jacket colony near your garden and you can tolerate the wasps, they'll clean out all the caterpillars that want to eat your squash and cucumbers," he said.

The museum's model yellow jacket nest (complete with hexagonal cells shown at right) will be up through Saturday and is free to visit.

"I don't know much about wasps, except that they sting," said Kathleen Cain who was having lunch with her children on the Ross Terrace. "I bet our kids would probably enjoy coming to see it and learning about it."

Cain's friend Polly Lagana agreed: "It might be a little hot in there living like a wasp. But it sounds intriguing and unusual."

The project is a joint effort of the Natural History Museum and Nat Geo WILD, which is debuting its new television show on animal architecture, "Live Like an Animal," next year. On Friday, three Nat Geo WILD television hosts will live in the wasp nest for a day and even forage for insects to eat within a 3.5-mile radius of the museum.

The Natural History Museum's Hymenoptera collection includes the world's largest collection of real wasp nests with more than 1,000 specimens as well as a 7.5 million-specimen gall wasp collection donated in 1956. Click the museum video below to learn more.

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