Hakai Magazine


One Great Shot: Hanging with Wasps

A nature photographer gets acquainted with thread-waisted wasps in British Columbia.

Authored by

by Thomas Barbin

Article body copy

close up of a thread-waisted wasp

In the summer of 2020, I was exploring a sandy spit on Quadra Island, British Columbia, in hopes of spotting some of the insects that call the island home. I really wanted to encounter a thread-waisted wasp, which is a member of the genus Ammophila. These wasps have an interesting and brutal life cycle. Females dig their nests in sandy soil. Then, they go hunting for grasshoppers and other insects. When a female wasp finds her prey, she delivers a paralyzing sting before dragging the body back to her nest. Next, she lays an egg inside the paralyzed insect’s body. When the larva hatches, it kills and consumes the host.

Having seen thread-waisted wasps in other sandy coastal habitats, including Island View Beach on southern Vancouver Island, I set out in search of my target with high hopes. I knew from experience that as temperatures cool in the evening, these wasps go to sleep on the dead stems of gumweed plants. They clamp their mandibles—sharp-edged mouthparts that pinch horizontally—to the stalks and hang there until the sun warms them in the morning.

Sunset was well underway when I finally found a group of thread-waisted wasps clinging to a patch of skeletal gumweed. I immediately got to work capturing the image I had in mind. I found a stem with a single sleeping wasp latched on and positioned myself to get the sunset in the background. I chose a lens wide enough to capture some of the environmental context, changed my camera’s settings to expose the sky, and used a diffused flash to illuminate the wasp.

I have found these wasps to be very tolerant of people and cameras entering their personal space—which was great because I was able to try out multiple camera angles without worrying about being stung or the wasp flying away. While this isn’t the exact shot I had in mind, I am quite happy with the result.