If you’ve ever wandered the hills of St. Martin, you’re sure to be familiar with the Jack Spaniard. It is a red, yellow and black wasp that builds nests of paper and defends them fiercely. Too often, the first sign of a nearby nest is a piercing, electric sting. A couple days of itching and swelling follow. Any dry spot is a likely nest location: a big branch, a wide leaf, an awning or a rocky overhang.
But where are they now? In the days immediately after the hurricane, Jack Spaniards came to our hummingbird feeders, but then they stopped. They’ve been conspicuously absent in the months since. We have bees and we have butterflies. We have had plenty of flies and mosquitoes. But the Jack Spaniard seems to be gone.
Hurricanes seem like the perfect tool to get rid of these wasps. The winds were strong enough to rip their paper nests down to be soaked and destroyed. Adult wasps feed on nectar—which is why they were at our hummingbird feeders—and most of them may have starved in the aftermath of the storm. These wasps feed their young on caterpillars, another resource that would have been absent immediately after Irma.
This triple threat may help explain why Jack Spaniards vary so much from island to island. Pre-Irma they were extremely common here. On St. Kitts, I only saw them a couple times during weeks of field research. If recovery after a major storm takes years, perhaps differences between islands can be connected to hurricanes.
I imagine many would say “Good riddance!” to the Jack Spaniard. Personally, I don’t mind being able to walk down a trail without being stung. But they do play a role in the local ecosystem—a few, in fact. They pollinate flowers when they are feeding on nectar, and they kill a lot of caterpillars to feed their larvae. They’re also a popular food for the Gray Kingbird.
What will happen next? Chances are, they’re only mostly gone. I would guess that some nests survived in very protected areas, like caves or abandoned buildings. If there are some still here, we will start to see them as the population grows. This could be a very fascinating chance to watch and learn as a unique phenomenon happens.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any Jack Spaniard specialists working on the island right now. I guess it is up to all of us. If you see Jack Spaniards or their nests, contact Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook or at lesfruitsdemer.com. Let us know where and when you saw them, and take a photo if you can. Perhaps together we can make a new discovery about how an animal population recovers after a hurricane. That’s gotta be worth a sting or two!