By Charlotte Owen
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.