So what about the Wasps you might ask in a world of beautiful Bees and balletic Butterflies?
It may surprise you to know that wasps also pollinate: in fact, there is evidence that they do as good a job as bees! A world without wasps would be a far worse place. Wasps are ecologically essential insects. Both predators and pollinators, the social wasps (those yellow and black insects that bother us at picnics) live fascinating social lives and are much undervalued, even despised. However, just like their more glamourous cousin the honeybee, wasps are suffering as we change habitats and spray insecticides. The UK’s Natural History Museum states “Without wasps, the world would be overrun with spiders and insects. It is estimated that each summer social wasps capture 14 million kilo of insect prey such as caterpillar and greenfly.” Such is their importance and how little we know about wasps that the UK has established a scientific survey “The Big Wasp Survey” which aims to gather important scientific data to help quantify wasp species, abundance, diversity and distribution.
The large football-shaped paper nest you might discover in your attic or in your shed in the summer has developed from a single queen wasp; she hatched and developed the previous September, mated, and spent the winter hibernating. In the spring, the queens wake up and begin to build their nests. They lay their eggs and they feed the brood themselves until eventually they have workers on the wing after which, the queen lays eggs exclusively and the workers tend the brood. The workers are all female and they all sting – the sting is delivered through an adapted ovipositor; a tube like organ used for laying eggs and for piercing. The colony can contain up to 10,000 workers by the end of the summer.
As the summer progresses, the colony produces new potential queens by feeding some larvae richer food at a faster rate. They also produce male wasps that mate with potential queens from other colonies. As the colony winds down in late summer and early autumn, the remaining workers die off and the colony reaches the end of its life. It is only the young queens-in-waiting that make it through the following winter to start the cycle again.
Wasps belong to a highly diverse group of insects called the Hymenoptera with more than 150,000 species across the globe. Some of the Hymenoptera, like the ants, honeybees and bumblebees, are well known for living together in colonies and when we say “wasp” we are usually thinking of the yellow-and-black striped species that live together in large nests. Actually, these social species are very much a minority in the world of wasps. The vast majority of wasp species lead solitary lives. There are around 9000 species of these solitary wasps in the UK – and we never really notice them.
Ireland’s most common wasps are Vespula vulgaris (Common Wasp) and the Vgermanica (German or European Wasp). These are the yellow and black varieties we are so familiar with and are very similar in appearance. Remarkably, both the Common and German wasps of Ireland mostly build their nest underground which badgers avidly plunder for combs of larvae and eggs. Interestingly, the paper nests seen hanging in sheds and roof spaces can be either species.
Dr Seirian Sumner of University College London said wasps are nature’s pest controllers and a world without wasps would mean that we would have to use a lot more pesticides to control the other insects that we dislike and find annoying.
“They’re the maligned insect of the insect world – they’re viewed as the gangsters, ” she told the BBC. “Whereas actually we should be viewing them as a beneficial insect – they’re doing us a favour, and we’re just completely overlooking that favour.”
By the end of summer why do wasps, seemingly, suddenly appear from nowhere and become so annoying and behave so aggressively? Well, scientists don’t really know why and nobody is quite sure but offer the following explanation.
After the queen stops laying at the end of summer the worker wasps become redundant and this leads to our problems with them – they have spent the summer gathering insects, chewing them up and feeding them to the larvae. In return the larvae secrete a sugary syrup which the workers take as food. When the larvae runs out the wasps have to find another source of sugary food which could explain why our sugary foods become their target. I have such empathy for them; I feel they are suffering sugar withdrawal symptoms – would you behave any better if you were suddenly forced to stop smoking and become unemployed at the same time? My solution is simple, don’t swat them, this only increases their anxiety; share your food with them. Remember how hard she worked all summer to keep your garden insect free and house spider free.
Finally, don’t destroy their nest…. It is surprising how many queens hibernate inside the hive roof…… they never reuse their hives so if you have one hanging around leave it until the queen leaves in the spring to find new lodgings.