By Charlotte Owen
Think ‘wasp’ and you’ll immediately picture something black and yellow and annoying, buzzing around your picnic and ready to sting at any moment, but there is more to the much-maligned wasp than first meets the eye.
The common wasp Vespula vulgaris is just one of a staggering 9,000 different species of wasp that can be found here in the UK. Only a handful would be instantly recognisable as wasps and they range in size from tiny parasitic species that are barely visible without a microscope to the impressively large Eurasian hornet, which can reach gargantuan proportions of up to 3 cm. The typical black-and-yellow stripy wasps are the social wasps: they live in colonies, build architecturally impressive nests and have fascinating social lives.
Every wasp nest begins with a single queen. She selects a nest site and begins construction so that she can rear her first brood of daughters. These are the worker wasps and it’s their job to help their mother to expand the nest and raise more wasps. Only the females have stingers and they use them 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, and in fact they are physically incapable of eating it because their guts are so constricted by their thin ‘wasp waists’. Instead, they collect it to feed to the nest’s 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.