Was It Designed?
The Engineering Instinct of the Paper Wasp
● Paper wasps have been described as masters of engineering. Why is this description fitting?
Consider: As its name suggests, the paper wasp builds and maintains its compound nest out of a special kind of paper, which it manufactures itself.a The insect collects fibers of plants and of dead wood from all kinds of places—logs, fence posts, telephone poles, and building materials. It then chews the cellulose-rich material, adding a sticky, high-protein saliva. When applied, the resulting paste dries to form a light, firm, yet tough, paper. Moreover, the saliva has special properties that enable the paper to generate and absorb heat, thus maintaining the right temperature in the brood comb on cool days.
The wasp builds its nest “mouthful by mouthful.” The finished product is a waterproof, paper-umbrella-covered cluster of hexagonal cells—the hexagon combining strength and efficiency. Wasps that live in wetter areas simply add more oral secretion because of its water-resistant properties. That said, the insects select sites that offer some kind of protective overhang. From this they suspend their downward-facing nests by a stalk, or petiole. Moreover, paper wasps do no harm to the environment—unlike our papermaking processes, which pollute air, water, and land!
Understandably, architects and researchers are studying the wasp’s products with a view to designing superior building materials that are lightweight, strong, more flexible, and biodegradable.
What do you think? Did an insect with a brain roughly the size of two grains of sand figure out papermaking and nest architecture by itself? Or are its chemical- and mechanical-engineering skills evidence of design?
a A number of wasp species build paper nests. The cells therein serve as chambers for eggs, which develop into larvae.