Wasps “could be just as valuable as bees if we give them the chance”. That was one recent headline about a study claiming we had just misunderstood the stinging summer pests. Not surprisingly, it was widely mocked by people who did not want to give wasps a chance.
Well, they’re out and on the wing now, so it’s worth getting to know wasps. There are about 9,000 different species in this country and only 250 of those have stings. Many are tiny parasitic wasps whose larvae feast upon spiders and aphids. Others are solitary digger wasps who build their nests in the ground, with volcanoes of soil marking the entrance hole.
The heath potter wasp, which you can see in the south of England, makes little vases where it lays an egg, deposits caterpillars for the emerging wasp larva to eat, and seals it up. They pollinate, feast on pests and help other beneficial insects such as hover flies. Ah, you say. There she goes with her #notallwasps claims, but the point is that the wasps we all know are the stinging rotters. Well, in the defence of the yellowjacket, vespula vulgaris, which is the stripy black and yellow picnic gatecrasher, they are quite interesting characters — and yes, they are as useful in our ecosystem as bees. They form complex social orders, with worker wasps evolving to rear their siblings in the nest. The females, which are larger than the males, strip wood from dead branches, picnic tables and so on, and regurgitate it to make their beautiful papery nests.
The reason they like to bother you for your jam and beer is that all this child rearing is very tiring, and the workers need to keep their energy levels up. Normally they’ll get their sugars from flower nectar or fruits, but cannot resist a fast food outlet offered by a group of humans enjoying a socially distanced picnic. They might still be unwelcome near your hamper, but at least you now know there’s more to wasps than we give them credit for.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service