During the winter months, I often get reports of intimidating-looking, but harmless and quirky wasp-like creatures known as “wood wasps” (Family Xiphydriidae). What makes them quirky?—They’re basically the bobbleheads of the insect world, which always reminds me of going to baseball games as a kid.
Having “wasp” in the name can evoke a certain amount of anxiety, and you can already guess that wood wasps are related to the yellowjackets and paperwasps of late summer. However, the wood wasps belong to an early branch within ant/bee/wasp group (the Order Hymenoptera) and lack the anatomical structures and ability to sting.
Wood wasps have a distinct appearance, so once you’ve trained your eye, they’ll be hard to miss the next time around. These insects tend to be about an inch long with slender, dark-colored bodies and orange legs. There are often some pale stripes or patches on or just behind the head and in some cases the tips of the antennae can be pale as well. The most diagnostic feature gives wood wasps their bobblehead status in my book—the bulbous head of these insects is attached by a scrawny “neck” when viewed from the side. You can even imagine it bobbing back and forth, if only a tiny spring were attached.
You might ask yourself, how are these insect bobbleheads active in winter when most other insects are scarce? The answer boils down to firewood. The pale, grub-like larvae of wood wasps live in the wood of dead or dying trees. When these trees are chopped into firewood, we end up hand-carrying the insects into our cozy winter abode. If the wood isn’t used in the fireplace right away, the larvae take advantage of the spring-like conditions and transform into active adults indoors. To those unfamiliar with wood wasps, you can scratch your head for days trying to find the source, but once you recognize them and their origins, moving the firewood to a colder location is the simple fix.