Wasps are great! But there’s a sting in the tail

Wasps repairing their nest.

Wasps repairing their nest. - Credit: Archant

A few years back I was fixing a shed in our garden and had enlisted the help of my young son. We were busy moving rotten pieces of wood from the side of the shed when suddenly I felt sharp stabbing pains in my lower legs. Before I had a chance to investigate my son started screaming in pain and it took a few more seconds to realize that we were trampling on a wasps’ nest!

Wasps repairing their nest.

Wasps repairing their nest. - Credit: Archant

They were very angry so we ran inside the house, stripping off as we went. My son had been stung all up the legs and was crying in pain. I had been stung quite a few times too but tending to his stings thankfully provided just the distraction from the pain I needed.

Twenty minutes later we were both virtually pain free but seared on our memories was the experience of encountering the wrong end of a wasp!

Thankfully neither of us had any allergies to such stings but there are very few people for whom the mention or sight of a wasp does not immediately induce revulsion and varying degrees of fear. It is not hard to see how our dislike of the wasp, often extending to raw hatred, has come about.

With their yellow and black striped ‘jackets’ and facial markings that give the impression of an angry masked bandit these little insects fit the bill as ‘the bad guys’.

Reinforced from an early age with children’s TV programs such as ‘Fifi and the Flowertots’ featuring Stingo the nasty trouble-making wasp, the wasp is one of the first characters of natural history we will become familiar with.

On the appearance of a wasp, adults and children alike quickly recite that ‘bees only sting once and then die, while wasps can keep on stinging’! The ever-virtuous bee is cast as the noble character whose power in only exercised as a last resort in contrast to the evil wasp who may sting at will…and will sting!

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As if this isn’t enough they are at their most annoying at this time of year and into autumn – plaguing us at picnics and outdoor parties and refusing to leave either our food or us alone. Their scientific name –vespula vulgaris – seems to capture something of how we feel: they are ‘vulgaris’ (everywhere) and well, vulgar.

The ‘vulgarity’ of wasps is exacerbated because, by and large, we see them at their worst. From late summer onwards, they have become little insect vagabonds - unemployed social outcasts who have hit hard times and now, drunk on fermenting windfall fruit juice, hungrily seek whatever sugary sustenance they can find.

With winter approaching their fate is sealed. It is perhaps no wonder that we, who love sugary food too, should clash with this desperado at this time of year!

But the wasp’s sorry state at this time of year is not the whole picture and earlier this year I got a glimpse into the world of this social and industrious insect that can equal any ant or bee in organisational efficiency.

Walking along a footpath locally I was stopped in my tracks by a persistent sawing sound next to me. Pushing aside the foliage I eventually found a wasp busily sawing away at a dead and dry stem.

Just last week I found the fruit of its labours just a few yards along the bank. A hedge-cutter had torn over the surface of the bank and revealed a wasps’ nest built in the cavity of a fox’s hole.

The nest was ruined and hundreds of wasps crawled over the remaining surface busily repairing as fast as they could. Built from chewed-up wood pulp wasp nests truly are a work of art with thousands of perfectly hexagonal cells to house the new wasp larvae. These larvae are fed by adult worker wasps who in turn can feed on sugary droplets secreted by the larvae.

The nest is the very definition of organization, initiated by a single queen wasp and then built up and policed by thousands of worker wasps, the one aim to raise more queens to start next year’s nests and males to mate with queens from other colonies.

Once this has been accomplished (or a hedge-cutter passes by) the work of the majority is done and the worker wasps must leave, jobless and in search of sugary sustenance now the larval supply has gone.

This knowledge of their honest and hardworking beginnings may not be enough to move us to feel love and compassion for the wasp but perhaps we can recognize that they are a more than just a pest to be swatted.

As predators they play a vital role in controlling other potential pest insect and caterpillar populations and have been shown to be a vital contributor to the work of pollination. Without them we might just we worse off!