Wasps: friend or foe?
Part of the fun of wildlife gardening is the act of challenging our own attitudes and assumptions towards plants and animals which we have been taught to regard as weeds and pests. Making this questioning approach habitual will help you tap a rich source of creative thinking, establish a more successful wildlife garden and infinitely increase your enjoyment of it. Whenever you catch yourself responding to a wild animal or plant in a negative way, it can be tremendously rewarding to really examine why you do soWhenever you catch yourself responding to a wild animal or plant in a negative way, it can be tremendously rewarding to really examine why you do so. Personally I find that the more I know about an animal or plant (even the 'nasty' ones), then the better disposed I am towards it!
Consider wasps. In the words of Stefan Buczacki in Fauna Britannica, "Wasps must be the most misunderstood and unjustifiably maligned of all common British Insects". In the later summer months gardeners, pub-goers, picnickers, in fact virtually everyone, encounters wasps on a regular basis. The vast majority of these encounters are characterised at best by mild anxiety and at worst by blind panic. If instead, we regarded wasps with genuine interest or even as things of beauty, all that needless stress and fear would be replaced by something much more positive.
Wasps I have known: a personal account
We can all relate a personal tale to justify our own attitudes towards these creatures: this is one of my own. When I was about ten, I was bicycling around the lanes of South Essex one sultry summer's day with my friend John. I was wearing a shirt unbuttoned at the neck and chest and given that this was the 1970s, it was probably one of those ones with the huge collars which must have been gaping wide enough to sweep up any airborne wildlife half a yard either side of the bike!
Common wasp. (View bigger image.)
As we were tearing along, unbeknown to me, a wasp was funnelled into my shirt and finding itself trapped in this polyester hell it went, understandably, a bit mental. I thought I was having, at the age of ten, my first and possibly last heart attack. I screamed my lungs out and, quite ignoring my brakes, attempted to bring myself to a halt by means of friction between the soles of my shoes and the ground. Confronted by this spectacle, John could only attribute it to a sudden and catastrophic loss of marbles, and was already wondering how he was going to explain it to my mum when he got me home. Thankfully we were disabused of our respective misdiagnoses when we saw the wasp escaping from its own nightmare.
An experience like that has a powerful influence on the shaping of a young mind and tends to push it in one of two directions: the avoid-wasps-at-all-costs-no-matter-what-a-pansy-you-look route or the more macho use-every-means-at-your-disposal-to-wage-a-personal-war-on-wasps route.
I took the latter route. During a family holiday on the Isle of Wight several years and many battles later, my sister Terry, who was of the 'pansy' persuasion, attracted the unwelcome attentions of one of the local wasps. Her screaming and pathetic flapping invoked feelings of fraternal protectiveness in me and I thoughtfully mashed the offending creature in front of her eyes. Instead of playing the expected grateful damsel, her screams of terror turned to screams of rage as she accused me of murder and wept genuine tears of grief for the soul of the recently departed wasp. I had expected to be hailed as the conquering hero, but instead I was cast as a war criminal. I could have laughed off her confusing behaviour if she hadn't persisted in remonstrating with me for the rest of the holiday and beyond. This episode prompted me to re-examine my own attitude and eventually led me to adopt a new stance towards waspsThis episode prompted me to re-examine my own attitude and eventually led me to adopt a new stance towards wasps: the 'Third Way' of Homonid-Vespid inter-specific politics; the ignore-or-calmly-move-the-wasp-on-its-way approach.
This 'Third Way' has served me (and the wasps) well for many years, but recently the habitual self-questioning I talked of above made me wonder if I was not overlooking wasps rather. It only took a few minutes research to convince me that, in fact, I was. As I have already said, the more I know about a plant or animal, the more I like it; and now I know enough about wasps so that my encounters with them are characterised by curiosity instead of indifferencenow I know enough about wasps so that my encounters with them are characterised by curiosity instead of indifference. I want to know what species of wasp I'm looking at, what caste it is (worker, male or queen?) and what its behaviour means.
A wasp is a wasp is a wasp?
To be more taxonomically precise I should refer to social wasps in this feature since biologists use the term wasp (or true wasp), in a much broader sense, covering many hundreds of species in Britain. You may be surprised that the animal which we commonly call a wasp (i.e. a social wasp) could be one of eight species here in Britain, though generally speaking, in our gardens it is most likely to be either the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) or the german wasp (Vespula germanica)generally speaking, in our gardens it is most likely to be either the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) or the german wasp (Vespula germanica).
Tree wasp. (View bigger image.)
The other six are norwegian (Dolichovespula norwegica), tree (Dolichovespula sylvestris), red (Vespula rufa), cuckoo (Vespula austriaca), median (Dolichovespula media) and saxon (Dolichovespula saxonica) wasps (scientific names after Ings 2003). The latter two are relatively recent arrivals to Britain; only found to be breeding in the last 20 years or so, and you will find that some reference guides (particularly the older ones of course) do not mention them. (Strictly speaking, the cuckoo wasp is not a social species - instead mated queens place their eggs in the nests of red wasps: there are no 'workers' in this species.)
There's a ninth species of social wasp that's distinctive enough to have a completely different common name; the hornet (Vespa crabro). These magnificent creatures are only found in the southern part of England, but if you live in this region, you may well come across them in your garden. They are perhaps the easiest species to recognise because they have distinctive colouration; the black of other wasps being replaced by brown on the hornet (though some of the other species, such as red, norwegian and median wasps, also have lesser red/brown markings). They are also noticeably larger than our other wasps. Despite the well-known phrase "stir up a hornet's nest", these creatures are perhaps our most docile social wasp and will, in fact, only get aggressive if you really do stir up their nest!
The other social wasps are relatively similar to each other in appearance but can be told apart, with patience and practice, by differences in the markings on their abdomens (i.e. their 'tail ends') and their faces. To complicate the matter, there are also differences in appearance between different castes of the same species and even individuals within the same caste and species can vary. But don't let that put you off. The trick to identification, as with any group of animals or plants, is to first learn to recognise the most commonly encountered individuals, which in this case are likely to be the worker castes of the common and german wasps. These two types will account for the vast majority of wasps that most people are likely to see in their gardens over the summerThese two types will account for the vast majority of wasps that most people are likely to see in their gardens over the summer, and just learning to tell these apart can be very satisfying. Once you have these nailed, other castes or species will jump out just because they 'look different'. When this happens, you can rush off to get your reference material (if it's close at hand) or just make a special effort to remember the differences between this individual and those you usually see. If you can recall these differences when you get in front of some pictures, you will stand a good chance of identifying the new wasp.
Some of the species are rather rare, e.g. the cuckoo and saxon wasps, and for the most part, you will be able to discount them. After the common and german wasps, the species most likely to be encountered in our gardens are the norwegian, tree and red wasps.
Queen common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). Though not evident from the photograph, its size and the time of year it was seen (Spring), indicate that it is a queen. (View bigger image.)
When trying to identify a wasp, you should also bear in mind what time of year it is. If you encounter a large wasp in the spring, its quite likely to be a queen searching for a suitable site for a nestIf you encounter a large wasp in the spring, its quite likely to be a queen searching for a suitable site for a nest. New queens may also be encountered in the autumn, as can the malesNew queens may also be encountered in the autumn, as can the males.
This german wasp (Vespula germanica) does not have the usual face pattern, but the yellow gena (behind the eye) confirm its identity (see Social Wasps in Essex). (View bigger image.)
Males have noticeably larger antennae (in fact their antennae have an extra segment).
There are also many regional patterns in the distribution of each species, so the likelihood of seeing each one depends greatly on where you are. For example, the norwegian wasp is far more common as you travel north; indeed it may well be the wasp you are most likely to come across in Scotland. The rare saxon wasp is confined to the south-east of England and the southern distribution of the hornet has already been mentioned.
On the subject of reference material for identifying wasps, Michael Chinery's Field Guide to the Insects of Britain and Northern Europe has some good illustrations. There are also a number of good pictures and other resources on the web; for instance Roger Payne's account of social wasps in Essex contains some very good tips on identification. But if you can get hold of a copy, you can do no better than George Else's 1994 article Social Wasps published in British Wildlife magazine.
What are wasps for?
Chris Packham (in Chris Packham's Back Garden Nature Reserve), says that he is often asked "What are wasps for?". The question is symptomatic of the image of this, the 'public enemy number one' of the invertebrate world. Have a conversation with almost anyone about wasps and virtually all they will talk about is the fact that wasps can give you a painful sting. We are so awed and frightened by this powerful aspect of their natural history that we just can't get beyond it. Here I will lay out some details about their life cycles and behaviour in order to put that right.
All but one of the social wasps have generally similar life cycles. Solitary queens (mated fertile females) survive the winter by hibernating and establish new colonies in spring. Until the first 'brood' of workers (infertile females) has matured, the queen is solely responsible for building the nest, hunting for food and caring for the young. As workers mature, they take on these duties and eventually the queen devotes herself to egg laying and maintaining social order within the nest.
Wasps make a kind of paper by masticating wood and this is used to construct the nest which may be located underground (e.g. in an old animal burrow), in vegetation (e.g. a tree or bush) or in a cavity (such as a hollow tree or building). Different situations are preferred by different species. Generally speaking, common and german wasps will build in cavities under the ground, but both species will also use building cavities such as roof spacesGenerally speaking, common and german wasps will build in cavities under the ground, but both species will also use building cavities such as roof spaces. The hornet tends to prefer hollow trees. The red wasp, which prefers open habitats, will often build its nest at ground level, e.g. in a tussock of grass or some low cavity. The other species mostly suspend their nests in bushes or trees but many also occasionally attach them to buildings etc. Hornets and common wasps use rotten wood which gives their nests a yellowish colour. The other wasps, including the german wasp, use mostly sound wood (though it may be dead) which usually gives the nest a greyer appearance. Some species, e.g. the median and tree Wasps use both rotten and sound wood giving the nest a banded appearance. You can use these differences in behaviour to give you a clue to the identity of a wasp that is chewing wood; for example a wasp taking wood from garden furniture, or other sound wood, is more likely to be a german wasp than a common wasp, since the latter favours rotten wood.
Generally the nest consists of a more or less spherical shell containing cells into which the queen lays eggs. Each egg develops into a larva, which is tended by the workers.
This tree wasp appeared to be chewing prey, the remains of which you can see on the laurel leaf in front of it. (View bigger image.)
One of the least appreciated facts about wasps is that the larvae are fed entirely on the remains of other animals, mostly invertebrates, which the workers actively hunt down. An enormous quantity of insects, particularly caterpillars and flies, which many people consider as pests, are taken by wasps to feed the larvaeAn enormous quantity of insects, particularly caterpillars and flies, which many people consider as pests, are taken by wasps to feed the larvae. The workers themselves have a very different diet, relying largely on nectar. They also take a sugary substance produced by the larvae in the nest (an unused by-product of the larvae's diet). Eventually the larvae pupate and finally emerge from their cells either as workers or, towards the end of the summer, males or fertile females. Differences in the positioning and construction of the nest cells and in the way they are tended contribute to the determination of the caste that is produced (i.e. worker, male or fertile female).
Once the males and the fertile females have been produced and dispersed from the nest, the colony's work is done. The old queen eventually dies and it is at this time or year that the workers can become a nuisance to people. Freed from the need to capture meat for the young and no longer supplied by their sweet secretions, they have both the time and inclination to satisfy their 'sweet tooth' from other sources which, unfortunately, sometimes brings them into conflict with people. After dispersing from the nest in late summer/autumn, the males and fertile females from different nests have a bit of a party and, with any luck, the fertile females end up as fertilised females, i.e. queens. The males die happy and the new queens fatten themselves up for the winter, find somewhere secluded to hang out and the whole cycle starts again.
The exception to this general pattern of behaviour is the cuckoo wasp. As its name implies, this wasp is a social parasite - the queen finds a fairly new red wasp's nest with recently emerged workers and kills or ejects the red wasp queen. The cuckoo wasp queen then lays its own eggs into waiting cells and the red wasp workers raise them. The cuckoo wasp eggs develop into males and fertile females only - no cuckoo wasp workers are produced.
Making friends with a wasp
The amiable male wasp is literally incapable of stinging you (he doesn't have the right bits), so you can relax and share a pint with one. The males are really only after one thing and are pretty useless for almost anything else. Yes well enough said on that subject I think. The workers (infertile females) and fertile females have evolved modified ovipositors (the egg laying apparatus in other insects) which enable them to deliver a dose of venom. This has evolved purely as a mechanism to defend the nest and we should realise that it is in defence of the nest that wasps are 'programmed' to sting. If you are not disturbing a nest, a wasp will not want to sting youIf you are not disturbing a nest, a wasp will not want to sting you. If you inadvertently find yourself near a nest, then retreat...very slowly - sudden movements will trigger their instinct to defend the nest. If you inadvertently find yourself near a nest and the wasps have started to sting you, then retreat...very quickly: the wasps exhibit a group reaction and once one has stung you in defence of the nest, others are likely to follow quickly.
There are only a few deaths in the UK each year resulting from wasp stings. Figures from National Statistics Office, quoted by show just five deaths resulting from the stings of wasps, bees and hornets combined, in 1996 and only three in 1995 (South Gloucestershire Council 1998). You are more likely to be killed after getting into your car, climbing a ladder, eating a peanut - you name it, virtually anything. You are far more likely to win the jackpot on the National Lottery than be killed by a wasp!You are far more likely to win the jackpot on the National Lottery than be killed by a wasp! Certain groups of people are more vulnerable than others, including the very young, the very old and those known to be allergic to wasp venom. Most people, when stung by a wasp, will just show a local reaction around the sting; some pain and some swelling which soon subsides leaving them with a good tale to tell friends and family. The swelling itself can be more worrying if it occurs around the airway, so stings to the throat or mouth should be treated with respect - a quick visit to Casualty may be in order. Very rarely, a person may exhibit an allergic reaction to the venom which, in an even smaller number of cases, can lead to anaphylactic shock requiring urgent medical attention. To be safe, a reaction to a wasp sting which resembles something other than the local reaction described above should be referred to a medical professional.
If you find a nest in your garden or, for example, in your loft, it should usually be possible to keep away from it (you don't need a five mile exclusion zone). If you can do this and view the nest from a safe distance, you may be surprised at the pleasure it will give you over the course of the summer. If this is not possible or if, for example, it is not practical to keep children away, the nest will need to be removed. Don't attempt to do this yourself, but simply report the nuisance to the local council who should be able to deal with it efficiently and humanely.
Away from the nest, as long as you remain calm (you need not stay still) and do not overtly threaten the wasp (e.g. by flapping wildly at it), you will both get along just fineAway from the nest, as long as you remain calm (you need not stay still) and do not overtly threaten the wasp (e.g. by flapping wildly at it), you will both get along just fine. If you are the inquisitive sort, you can feel quite secure about approaching wasps to get a better look at them and their behaviour; as long as they don't feel threatened, they will completely ignore you. Deliberately putting down some sweet bait (e.g. some jam) in a convenient spot is a good way to observe them and the same technique can be used to distract them away from your own food if you are eating outside.
If this feature encourages anyone with a negative approach to these fascinating animals to rethink their relationship with them, it will have fulfilled its purpose. Nevertheless, part of me would lament the loss of the wasp's reputation if it were to disappear altogether; the sight of a bloke flapping around in the most girlie fashion imaginable is, after all, one of the most amusing sights of a British summer!
|First published January 2003. Last revised December 2004.|
Copyright Richard Burkmar 2003. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.|
Back to home page
Do you live in Merseyside? Interested in its wildlife?