Are we the bad guys? Speaking up for wasps

21 June 2021 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Insects
Are we the bad guys? Speaking up for wasps
Ruby tailed wasp © Barry Yates

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer 

Think “wasp” and you’ll immediately picture something black and yellow and annoying, buzzing around your picnic with apparently nothing better to do and able to sting just for the fun of it. But there is more to the much-maligned wasp than first meets the eye. 

The Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, is just one of nine species of social wasp here in the UK. These are the ones that live in colonies, build architecturally impressive nests and have fascinating social lives but there are around 9,000 different UK wasp species in total, most of which are solitary, and they range in size from tiny parasitic wasps that are barely visible without a microscope to the relative ‘giant’ Hornet, with a body length approaching 3cm.

The social wasps are predators and use their sting to immobilise flies, aphids, caterpillars and other invertebrate prey. When you tot up the activity of the country’s total social wasp population, they will take around 14 million kilograms of insect prey in the course of a single summer, which is a pretty impressive pest control service. They don’t actually eat all this protein themselves but collect it to feed to their growing larvae, which in turn secrete a sugary liquid that is lapped up by the adult wasps. This explains their sugar cravings, which intensify in late summer when the nests are empty, the larvae are gone and the wasps must find alternative food sources. Despite their love of fizzy drinks they do visit flowers to sip on nectar and provide a valuable pollination service in the process. They’re just as vital as their cousins the bees in this respect, so perhaps it’s time we started showing wasps some love as well.

Comments

  • Anthony:

    24 Jun 2021 10:38:00

    I once saw a wasp killing a bee. Was this unfortunate bee just food for the wasp or was there some other thing going on here. Seemed a bit unfair and a one sided fight if we call them cousins…
    Anthony

    Adult wasps hunt other insects, including bees, to provide food for their larvae. In return, the larvae secrete a sugary substance that feeds the adults. Adult wasps also feed on nectar, fruit and honeydew. Charlotte
  • Hermine Baldwin:

    24 Jun 2021 12:02:00

    Oh, so interesting to learn about wasps. Thank you

  • Ali:

    24 Jun 2021 12:17:00

    This is a great article which I shall be passing on to those who think wasps have no purpose.

  • Steve Duke:

    24 Jun 2021 12:30:00

    I understood that wasps were huge consumers of carrion, cleaning up the remains of dead animals and birds. Have I got that wrong?

    ANSWER Wasps do consume carrion (to feed their larvae) and will also hunt the flies and other insects drawn to carrion. But I don’t have any data on how huge their impact is.
  • Rebecca:

    24 Jun 2021 13:20:00

    A really useful article, thanks Charlotte. It upsets me to see garden centres promoting “plants for pollinators” alongside wasp-zapper rackets.

  • P Gauntlett:

    24 Jun 2021 13:52:00

    Wasps our just as important as bees in our eco system.

  • 24 Jun 2021 13:57:00

    Has this been in your magazine at all? I can never get the kids to read it (tweens) but this would be such an amazing article to share in a more kid/ tween/teen-friendly format. My daughter is (self-diagnosed) Entomophobic but articles like this help in my view.

  • Mo Norrington:

    24 Jun 2021 14:26:00

    Great stuff. About time Wasps were fairly promoted.

  • Liz:

    24 Jun 2021 14:30:00

    I too will be forwarding this interesting information about wasps, thank you

  • Keith Forshaw:

    24 Jun 2021 15:55:00

    You have now corrected my perspective upon wasps now, can you tell me the purpose of snails?

  • Sue:

    24 Jun 2021 16:08:00

    Have a wonderful wasp nest in my garden bunker at the moment. They are very busy & I have watched the construction with fascination. They are not aggressive & just ignore me when I (very carefully) open the bunker to get anything out.

  • Roger Brooks:

    24 Jun 2021 16:15:00

    As an ex-beekeeper I spent a good deal of each summer taking measures to keep wasps away from my colonies as they can and will kill a colony. To me wasps are a menace. They may have a place in the scheme of things but not near bees.

  • Frances:

    24 Jun 2021 16:18:00

    In relation to “meat-loving” wasps, I would like to mention the Common Figwort, a large square-stemmed weed which grows abundantly in my garden in Crowborough and has tiny red flowers which are a magnet for wasps.

  • Steve Turner:

    24 Jun 2021 17:02:00

    I actually find wasps quite interesting. It’s good to take time and watch what they do. If you flap around, they will sting as a form of defence. I have had them crawling on me without issue. They have a nose then leave because there’s nothing interesting for them.
    However, I did get into my truck and sat on a hornet, that sting was something else. It really packed a punch. But they are still pretty to look at.
    I hope people read this and regard them for what they actually do for us.

  • Andy:

    24 Jun 2021 18:30:00

    What a coincidence. I was just wondering about wasps abs whether or not they pollinate this week!🙂

  • James Hunter:

    24 Jun 2021 21:02:00

    I agree save the wasps I have wrong about them all along i guess they do good really

  • Nick:

    25 Jun 2021 06:30:00

    In the past 45 years, I have not been stung by a wasp – even when picnicking! Since this is probably the main reason that most people reach for the swatter / spray, let me share my secret. If a wasp starts to annoy you, hold your hands out – palms up. This sounds like madness right? But it works! Within half a minute or so (usually) the wasp will fly off. This has even worked when I had jam on my fingers! I am guessing it’s something to do with pheromones but if there are any Behavioural Zoologists out there, I’d love to know if this is a known phenomena and why it works. Be Brave! – give it a try next time your having a pint in the pub garden.

  • Nicholas B Taylor:

    25 Jun 2021 08:53:00

    Thank you for speaking up for wasps, who cannot speak for themselves, though they can stand their ground. Today I am wondering whether we will ever see any common wasps again, though I saw three or four queens in the spring, and some small ones are thriving in special places. I may be wrong, but I thought wasps (common type anyway) normally use their jaws, not sting, when attacking prey, and I wonder whether the wasp on the apple was posed, as I thought they wait until something else makes a hole so the juices start to accumulate. As for danger to bees, as far as I know H. Sapiens is the only species that relentlessly wipes out its prey species, and even (native) hornets raiding hives are comically inefficient. Apart from their beneficial part in nature, wasps have taught me a lot about how species do or ought to relate to each other, balancing cooperation and competition, territoriality and commonality, rights and reservations.

  • Mary Harrison:

    25 Jun 2021 11:06:00

    My husband had an allotment and he was digging in his manure pile when he disturbed a wasp nest. One wasp came and stung him on his face, which he killed, but not before the wasp had called for help. A swarm of them came at him. he called me at work and I took him to A&E. the nurse there said he had been stung by 400 wasp stings, but he did survive and was very careful at the allotment afterwards.

  • Janet Russell:

    25 Jun 2021 11:23:00

    Very interesting! I have often wondered what the purpose of wasps is, as all creatures have some purpose. Now I know. Thank you

  • Michael Freestone:

    25 Jun 2021 13:03:00

    These are much maligned insects and people kill them for no logical reason. They fail to recognise how they fit in nature’s hierachy. I have sat in my garden and watched and listened to wasps shaving tiny slivers of wood for their nests. They are inquisitive creatures. In my loft I have perhaps six or eight nests of varying size and we get along just fine. Keep pumping out messages informing people about how nature has a reason for everything.

  • Alison:

    25 Jun 2021 13:23:00

    Well, I will not view wasps in the same way again – as annoying creatures only set on giving a nasty sting! What useful little things they are. A very informative article which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

  • Peter Harding:

    25 Jun 2021 13:42:00

    I agree that wasps pollinate flowers.
    My summer raspberries are entirely pollinated by bees whereas the autumn raspberries are also pollinated by wasps.

  • Elaine Parkin:

    25 Jun 2021 16:33:00

    People need to realise that wasps are pollinators, though not fluffy and appealing like bees! A badger dug a nest out down my lane and made off with a lot of wasps, maybe the nest too. They are part of the eco system and feed other wildlife – granted, disturbing a nest must be very frightening – they do indeed summon help.

  • Simon wigan:

    26 Jun 2021 03:11:00

    I am wondering if magpies have any use ? Are there statistics to understand their effect in our gardens?
    This is a serious question.
    Thank you.

    ANSWER: Magpies certainly do eat garden birds, their eggs and chicks, but there is little evidence that the magpies' predations have resulted in a decline in songbirds. A study (Birkhead et al 1991) showed an increase in Magpies populations had no effect on songbird breeding success. In fact, the number of woodland songbirds increased most where the number of magpies in the vicinity was at its greatest, suggesting that any decline in songbird numbers probably had more to do with habitat quality than Magpies.

    Magpies are intelligent, even by corvid standards, and very attractive birds, although they look black and white at first glance but when its feathers catch the light they glisten with secret shades of peacock blue and emerald green. In fact if they were uncommon, people would probably travel to see them.

  • Heide Roberts:

    27 Jun 2021 06:48:00

    We watched with fascination wasps ‘sawing off ‘ tiny bits of chicken on our dinner plates. To think that we used to kill them in jam jars! Now we worry about their absence.

  • Glenn:

    27 Jun 2021 09:24:00

    Commenting on Nick and others above, Wasps do get a very bad and awful Press. Children do panic and adults make this worse because of fear. I was taught as A student that wasps are the much needed equivalent of our “english” vulture. They do a very useful task, so should be tolerated, if possible. As they go around the garden clearing up sticky mess, sweet and sugary debris and dead items They take nectar & pollen by design and accident and only aim for certain other prey, parasitizing flies, bees etc. until we interfere. Some years are better, than others for them. I once as a professional gardener had 26 nests on the largest office roof garden in England ( needless to say I culled a few) , and left some of the out of the way ones not bothering the secrataries and their daily dough nuts. When approached, I was taught they move towards your breath, so hold it. Many people do not – and do not know they are mildly diabetic ( with acetone in their breath) or have drunk / ate sweet things like fizzy drink. So while you’re concentrating holding out your hand and providing a different scent from your palms – I would say to Nick that the wasp senses a more fruitful sources, and generally flies off. A lot of this advice is mostly anecdotal but after 45 years in the profession, I should not say this and tempt fate – but I have never been stung by a wasp, only bees that I once kept when an accident occurred. But have enjoyed a cold beer watching them on the odd occasion or two. Teach your children to value them, as friends.

  • Nick:

    27 Jun 2021 14:06:00

    Thanks Glenn for the partial explanation of the wasp behaviour when faced with upturned palms. I should mention that the wasps I have encountered in this way not only left me but also the food, drink and friends around me. Yes, it’s anecdotal, but the main point I was trying to make is that we don’t necessarily need to kill something, just because it’s inconveniencing us.

  • Nicholas B Taylor:

    28 Jun 2021 09:37:00

    I appreciate the points made by Roger Brooks and Mary Harrison, and sympathise with their misadventures. My nephew in Switzerland keeps bees, but his common problems are disease and varroa mites, or just some undefinable malaise, that may require destroying and replacing a whole colony. One absolute certainty in the world is that bad things happen, and tend to do so on a sliding scale of risk against severity, so it is impossible to be prepared for the very worst. However, that does not mean being unprepared, or adopting a Biblical attitude that the world has been created just for our benefit. I have experienced wasps’ nests in external wall cavities and around office buildings that never caused any problem, and have worked near or walked past nests day after day that apparently no-one else ever noticed. In one sense it is a good thing that the vast majority of people remain ignorant of their existence, as of so much else in nature, but it inevitably increases the risk of accident. I see today an Independent news item ‘wasp warning for July and August after inconsistent weather’. I understand their advice to call in pest controllers if you have a wasps’ nest in a place like the loft that could get out of control. We have the same right to defend ourselves and our livelihoods as they do, but that should be as far as it goes. Regarding holding out palms, thank you Nick and Glenn, I find that wasps are reluctant to touch you if they identify you as animal. If offering a titbit, I have to put my hand on a surface such as a table before one will approach, gingerly, but they quickly learn to associate your scent and touch with safety. Conversely, to drive one away, a punch on the nose may be more effective than flapping about like a tree in the wind. Regarding pheromones, it is interesting to witness a territorial battle, where two wasps grasp each other nose to tail and fan their wings, presumably exchanging pheromones until the intruder gives way. I have had them buzzing away in the palm of my hand, and afterwards carry a scent that causes a degree of confusion.

  • Andy:

    07 Jul 2021 18:41:00

    What a coincidence. I was just wondering about wasps abs whether or not they pollinate this week!🙂

  • Janet Barry:

    08 Jul 2021 11:28:00

    Every year, wasps find their way under the tile hanging on our house walls. They don’t always nest in the same place though. They leave us alone and we in turn leave them alone as they have never got into the house. We also have hornets somewhere around the house /garden but have never found their nest. Every summer when I turn the stable lights ( fluorescent strip lights) on to check the horses last thing at night, it attracts nocturnal insects which in turn attracts the hornets. The first year it happened I was very nervous that either I or the horse would be stung but it has never happened. We’re in our 18th year now and so far this summer I have seen a single hornet. I hope the recent changes in weather conditions hasn’t caused them any harm as they are usually visiting by now.

  • Gwalchgwyn:

    08 Jul 2021 14:03:00

    I have never feared wasps, and I have handled them a good few times, yet in my 43 years of life, I have never been stung by a wasp. I have been stung by a bee that got caught in my clothing, but it retained its sting and I was able to free it unharmed.

    I scolded my brother once for trying to drown a wasp with his beer that had landed near him. I offered the poor thing my hand and it climbed aboard without hesitation. I was fascinated to watch it clean and dry itself, much as bees I have rescued in the wetter months in early summer, before gently coaxing it onto a nearby flowering plant.

    I returned to the garden party to face exclamations of shock and horror. I explained my position on wasps, and described what a world without them would be like.

    To the question “ what if it stung you”, I replied “then I would have had a novel experience AND the satisfaction of saving a living creature from your thoughtlessness”. The wasp and I had an understanding, clearly; a sting might have hurt, but a death sentence for the mere prospect of it seemed excessive.

    Wasps get the worst press, but people are generally ignorant of arthropods anyway. My favourites are spiders, but I have a strong fascination for all small furry things, even if they’re not as cuddly as your average pet.

    The vast majority of human-arthropod interactions result in the death or maiming of a beautiful and important living creature that was only trying to live its tiny little life the best way it could, and I find that terribly, terribly sad.

    More people are killed and injured by pet rabbits than by stinging insects in my country, yet I don’t see people stamping bunnies to death.

    I am glad that the tide is changing, if only by painfully slow degrees, and learn to be more thoughtful of ‘lesser’ life forms. I only hope that humans can learn to appreciate these little lives before they’re all gone and we find ourselves doomed as a consequence!

  • Janet Barry:

    09 Jul 2021 06:47:00

    Every year, wasps find their way under the tile hanging on our house walls. They don’t always nest in the same place though. They leave us alone and we in turn leave them alone as they have never got into the house. We also have hornets somewhere around the house /garden but have never found their nest. Every summer when I turn the stable lights ( fluorescent strip lights) on to check the horses last thing at night, it attracts nocturnal insects which in turn attracts the hornets. The first year it happened I was very nervous that either I or the horse would be stung but it has never happened. We’re in our 18th year now and so far this summer I have seen a single hornet. I hope the recent changes in weather conditions hasn’t caused them any harm as they are usually visiting by now.

  • Nick:

    18 Jul 2021 09:04:00

    Thanks Glenn for the partial explanation of the wasp behaviour when faced with upturned palms. I should mention that the wasps I have encountered in this way not only left me but also the food, drink and friends around me. Yes, it’s anecdotal, but the main point I was trying to make is that we don’t necessarily need to kill something, just because it’s inconveniencing us.

  • Mike:

    24 Jul 2021 19:31:00

    I live in outer London hear Hearthrow,i have seen no wasp at all this year,I have seen only 2 bees,both were dieing,does no one care?

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