Dear Readers, I doubt that there are few insects that are more loathed than the wasp. As I walk through the park during late summer I can guarantee that I will pass by a picnic where a panicked mother is snapping a teatowel at a circling yellow-and-black marauder, while the children scream in contagious panic. At least one bus journey a year will be livened up by the presence of a wasp throwing itself against the window in an effort to escape while someone tries to squash it with a rolled-up Daily Mail. Indeed, Chris Packham, the BBC presenter, says that one of the questions that he is asked most often is ‘What are wasps for?’, as if every living thing was only here for our delectation. I would like to argue that wasps actually perform a very important function in the ecosystem, and furthermore that they are largely peaceable and fascinating creatures. I say this even though my mother was stung on the neck by one in 1968 in Epping Forest and reacted so badly that she looked like the Elephant Woman for several days. She has forgiven wasps for their misbehaviour, and therefore so can (most) of the rest of us, though I make an honourable exception for those of my readers who suffer from anaphylatic shock on contact with insect stings. I quite understand that you do not want to spend time in the company of anything yellow and black and six-legged, and I am sure I would be exactly the same.
During most of their lives, wasps are carnivorous animals. A few years ago, I had a sprouting broccoli plant in a pot in the garden, and, as is the way with these things, I forgot about it and it bolted. It seemed to attract a lot of butterflies and other insects, however, and so I left it along. Soon, a cabbage white butterfly had laid her eggs, and a few days later the leaves were being eaten by a mass of tiny caterpillars. As I sat and drank my tea in the evening, I noticed that a wasp was patrolling the plant, flying slowly round and round it almost like a helicopter using a searchlight. When she spotted a larva, she grasped it with her jaws and tried to pull it from the leaf, while the victim hung on literally for its life with the suckers at the back of its body. Sometimes the wasp won, and flew off with her bounty dangling below her. Other times, the caterpillar managed to resist her efforts, and she would move on to some slightly smaller, punier example. In the space of one cup of tea, the wasp might find and remove two or three caterpillars. Multiply that by the 5,000-10,000 workers in a Common Wasp nest, and you have a remarkable number of crop-damaging, leaf-munching larvae that do not survive to destroy our cabbages, broccoli and other vegetables.
By the autumn, nests are starting to go into decline, with lots of workers but not many babies. When there are wasp larvae in the nest, they produce a kind of honeydew to feed the workers, which provides them with carbohydrate and sugar. Once there are fewer larvae, the workers go elsewhere to find this, and this is why they are found around picnics and outdoor eating areas. I find that they are especially attracted to beer (please don’t ask me how I know this), and when we were in holiday in Slovenia the wasp traps were baited with the local brew. The wasps would fly into a bright yellow plastic container with a narrow neck, and would drown in the fluid within, creating a terrible wasp soup. I found that if I poured a few drops of beer into a saucer, the wasps would come and feed from that without bothering me, and would eventually buzz rather haphazardly away into the nearby trees to sleep off their hangover. Surely this is a more benign way of co-existing with our fellow creatures than luring them to their death?
The black-and-yellow colouration of wasps is a clear, unmistakable message that the insect is dangerous. Or at least you’d think so, if it weren’t for the many thousand of completely harmless insect species who have ‘nicked’ their livery. The perfectly benign hoverflies below may live a little longer because other creatures will think twice before tackling them – this is what’s known as Batesian mimicry, because the hoverflies are not actually dangerous, and are essentially ‘bluffing’. Incidentally, how can you tell a wasp from a hoverfly? A hoverfly doesn’t have a ‘waist’ – let’s not forget that a corset used to be known as a ‘waspie’. Plus, of course, hoverflies hover, while wasps drone about purposefully.
All of this is not, of course, to deny that wasp stings hurt. Having accidentally trodden barefoot on a wasp a few years ago, I can testify that it is surprisingly excruciating, rather like being unexpectedly stabbed with a red-hot needle. Spare a thought, then, for Justin O.Schmidt, of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Unit in Arizona. He has compiled the Schmidt sting pain insect by allowing himself to be stung by the majority of the Hymenoptera family (which includes bees, wasps and ants). His index goes from 1, where the insect sting is totally ineffective when applied to humans, up to 4 for the most painful interactions. The wasps found in the UK only get a measly score of 2, and you need to tangle with a Tarantula Hawk or a Bullet Ant before you get up to the heady heights of a 4. The Tarantula Hawk, as the name suggests, stings tarantula spiders with her 1/4 inch-long stinger, in order to paralyse them before she lays her egg on them. Schmidt described her sting as ‘blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric’. She is a rather beautiful and placid insect, however, and I can only imagine that Schmidt disguised himself as a hairy eight-legged arachnid to induce her hostility.
The most painful sting of all, however, comes from the Bullet Ant. This was given a 4+ score by Schmidt, who described it as ‘”waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours”. At this point, the occasional vexations of my day job as an IT trainer pale into insignificance, compared to the tribulations of a Hymenoptera sting researcher. Let us take off our (metaphorical) hats to Mr Schmidt, who has undertaken this investigation so that the rest of us don’t have to.
But, to return to the humble (and relatively painless) UK wasp. The two most common species seen are the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) and the German wasp (Vespula germanica), which are practically indistinguishable in the field unless you are able to get a close look at the wasp’s face, a daunting task with such an active insect. If you do manage to get that close, and see three little black dots on the yellow ‘forehead’ of the wasp, you are looking at a German wasp. And what an extraordinary and endearing face it is, viewed close-up. In ‘Bugs Britannica’, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey relate how Aristotle believed that wasps had ‘few virtues and no soul’, unlike bees. And yet, looking at this photograph I find it difficult to believe that this is a worthless creature. She may not give us honey, but she is the custodian of our cabbages, the sentinel of our cauliflowers and the guardian of our broccoli, and for this, surely, she should be given some respect and allowed to go on her way unsquashed and unmolested. I cannot believe that this planet is not big enough for both of us.
Tarantula Hawk Sting – “T-Hawk stinging organ” by Rankin1958 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:T-Hawk_stinging_organ.JPG#/media/File:T-Hawk_stinging_organ.JPG
Bullet Ant – “Paraponera clavata” by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paraponera_clavata.jpg#/media/File:Paraponera_clavata.jpg
Face of German Wasp – “Vespula germanica01” by ©entomart. Licensed under Attribution via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vespula_germanica01.jpg#/media/File:Vespula_germanica01.jpg
All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer.