Paper wasps use an oral secretion combined with masticated plant matter to create waterproof paper nests.


When it comes to building homes, people have a lot in common with wasps. Both use a variety of materials––wood, stone, straw, grass, leaves, and so on––to construct shelters that will protect them from the elements. And both use some kind of adhesive to hold the materials together. But there are also some key differences. For one, wasps don’t have access to store-bought adhesives like wood glue or duct tape.

Artist: Emily Harrington. Copyright: All rights reserved.

The Strategy

Instead, wasps work with what they have. And they have saliva. The sticky, glue-like substance helps them to build water-resistant nests by forming a quick-drying, glue-like matrix. The saliva is primarily with a high proline content. When mixed with the in plant matter a wasp chews, it dries quickly and irreversibly to a water insoluble, water repellant surface. This allows the wasp to build a nest that will stand up to the rigors of weather and the elements.

The Potential

The quick-drying, water-resistant properties of wasp saliva could inspire the creation of more natural adhesives for a variety of applications. Furthermore, the saliva itself, or a similar human-developed substance, could be mixed with plant matter or other materials to create lightweight, highly adaptable building materials for human applications.

A young female paper wasp (Polistes dominulus).

At a moderately high magnification of 681x this scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted some of the ultrastructural details made visible of the surface of an unidentified wasps nest found on the ground in the Decatur, Georgia suburbs. Note that the nest material takes on the appearance of woven fibers embedded in a glue-like matrix, very similar to the way in which rebar, i.e., iron textured rods, is embedding in concrete to reinforce the building material. Scattered amongst the matrix are small cellulose particulates. Wasp nests are primarily composed of a mixture of masticated wood chips, and the salivary secretions of the female wasps, who chew, and apply the mixture in a nest-building fashion unique to the specie of wasp. The nest is built around a configuration of hexagonal-shaped cells. A single egg is deposited into each cell, which will hatch into a larva, or pupa, that after a varying period of development, will seal itself into the cell, and metamorphose into an adult wasp.

Last Updated October 26, 2016