You’re sat out in the park enjoying a picnic with your friends. The sun is shining, everyone is having a great time until. The wasps arrive. The striped monsters are clearly out to attack and torment you. They have come from miles around to ruin this picnic. Chaos ensues as your friends try to swat away the menaces, and everyone thinks. “Why do wasps even exists?”. As a conservationist it doesn’t seem right that a species exists to serve no purpose to the ecosystem. By taking the time to wonder about these much despised creatures. They become another wonder of the natural world worthy of our respect.
When people remark “I hate wasps” we should enquire which wasps they feel they hate? Britain is home to far more than a single wasp species. Just including the social wasps (those that live together in hives) there are at least 12 species in Britain. That is not to mention the countless other species that live solitary lives, those that hunt spiders, parasitic wasps, tree boring wasps. The levels of diversity of wasp are staggering and the have evolved some remarkable adaptations and behaviours to survive. But we can assume that the majority of people don’t hate all wasps, they probably hate the wasps from the Vespidae family. This family includes the common wasps (the most likely culprit of picnic invaders), tree wasps and hornets.
So after you have heard the usual anti wasp speech you may be asked, “What do wasps even do for the world?”. This is a great question but not many regular picnickers want to spend the time observing swaps and learning about their behaviour. But if you do take the time there is one thing you will quickly notice. Wasps spend an awful lot of time around flowers. On a summer’s day if you stand near any thick bushes full of flowers wasps will soon be buzzing around. That is because during summer a wasp mainly feeds on nectar. Much like their fuzzy relatives the bees, wasps get covered in the pollen of plants and carry it off to pollinate the worlds flowers and plants. It’s safe to say that wasps are helping to keep the whole ecosystem ticking over thanks to their roles as pollinators. But that is far from all they do for the ecosystem. Later in the year when wasp larvae have hatched the wasps change from their vegetarian tendencies. The larvae feed on other creatures, but they are unable to catch anything themselves. So the adult wasps will go and kill small insects, chomp them up and return food parcels to their young. A great example of parental care in the invertebrate world. Some may now be thinking wasps re savages, killing other insects is a bit brutal, but the human race would struggle greatly without the wasps predatory habit.
The most common prey to the common wasp, in Britain, are aphids and blackfly. These species are all too familiar to anyone who has ever shown an interest in gardening. This tiny insects find their way to a tasty plant, before probing their long mouthparts into the stems. From here they suck out the sap of the plant, weakening it. With a large enough aphid infestation thousands of crops could be sucked to death. But the wasp are swift hunters of these hungry species and manage the populations to ensure the ecosystems health. Without wasps the use of pesticides will have to increase by a huge amount to keep the aphids in check. Anyone who has been watching the news in the past 5 years will be well aware of the effect pesticides are having on bee populations. If we continued the use of pesticides the number of pollinators (including wasps) will reduce putting our food resources at risk, but that’s a topic for another time.
So for those that are not yet convinced there is usually one more argument people cling on to, “Wasps are aggressive & down right evil, they sting for fun and attack people”. When a wasp starts to fly around a picnic people will sometimes begin to flail around crazily, some trying to swat the wasp, others running a mile. People are genuinely afraid of being stung for no reason (perhaps rightfully so if you have severe allergies). But next time a wasps comes buzzing around just stay very calm and still. The wasp is not out there to attack anyone for no reason. They are joining your picnic in the search for something sugary and tasty to give them the energy to survive after the Summer. If you remain calm they may even land on you, have a quick rest, ,maybe lap up some of the sweet food you have and then be on their way. But if you try to strike a wasp you may be in for a quick sting. The wasp will be out to defend itself from this attack. But if you leave them alone, they will not sting you.
Some one that took their faith in wasps to the extreme is tv presenter and conservationist Steve Backshall,
I can comfortably let wasps land on my hands and watch them buzz away again without hurting me. I’ve filmed in a Dorset loft, sitting alongside a hornet’s nest with my hands and camera up inside the nest itself, without its occupants showing me the slightest interest.
After learning more about the value of wasps I have found a great new appreciation for them. As is often the case, people hate what they do not understand. So go out there and learn about the our friends the wasps, proud pollinators, defender of crops, caring parent and ever-present picnic guest. The more we learn about these great animals the more we discover how we cannot live without them. So tell your friends not to swing at that wasp, share your ice-cream with them and act to protect these misunderstood creatures.