Anthology: the journeys of Wasps in the anthropocene


Nest visualised with UV

Nest visualised with UV, revealing the fluorescent optical brightner

Nest in daylight

Nest in daylight

Nest observed under UV

Nest observed under UV, revealing the fluorescent optical brightner

Nest in daylight

Nest in daylight

Because we are drawn to the bright and the white, many of the commodities of our daily lives are manufactured to artificially express these properties and in particular, to make these look cleaner or newer than they actually are. As a consequence of this, much of what we make or own contains synthetic and anthropogenic compounds called optical brighteners. These chemical agents work by fluorescing, that is by absorbing natural (from the sun) or artificial (from standard lighting) ultraviolet light and converting it into other colours of visible blue light, to make objects appear whiter and brighter than they otherwise are. Optical brighteners are thus commonly found in our clothes, washing powders, paper, plastics, and paints. These compounds are very simple to detect because they fluoresce (emit various colours of light) when they exposed to ultraviolet light and now pollute many of our environments.

A Wasp’s nest, like a book, is made from a type of paper. In a sense, it is also an anthology of short stories unknowingly written by the many wasps who constructed it. In its making, a wasp will strip wood or paper-like material, chew it into paper, and then deposit this into the growing nest as a short section, so that each of the many individual strips in the nest represent the end of a journey for one particular wasp. As each section of paper in the nest retains the characteristics of the material from which is was made, the essence of the wasp’s environment becomes woven into its very fabric. I’ve collected over ten wasps’ now nests, but only this one from Mrs White’s garden depicts a special story. In this nest a wasp has chosen an anthropogenic material containing a fluorescent optical brightener to make its paper and incorporated this into the nest. When exposed to ultraviolet light these areas are revealed by fluorescence and in a sense the Wasp has unintentionally augmented it’s nest with the properties of a manmade material.   Just two sections in the entire nest contain this synthetic material and it makes me wonder what happened to that particular wasp. Did it die before it could add more or did it find alternative material? Mrs White’s garden is rather untidy, littered with manmade material, and the wasp’s nest beautifully reflects the reach and the environment of the colony. This observation has provided the inspiration for a future work, in which a captive wasp colony is given only books and literature as building material so that the wasps might fashion their nest from this.

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