COLUMN: There may be a sting in their tails, but we still need wasps!


This week’s guest column comes from the RSPB’S Dr Chris Andrews...

What can be nicer during the sunny summer weather than to go for a picnic? A rug laid out, sandwiches, crisps, a bottle of pop. But what is this, gatecrashers at the feast! A high-pitched hum, a flash of black and yellow and all is in confusion as arms are flailed wildly at the intruding wasp. But do we really need to react that way?

“What good are wasps?” is a common question I get asked by friends. The implication being that wasps have no purpose in life, other than to launch themselves at innocent people, eating their jam sandwiches and stinging anyone who gets close. But the reality is really rather different. Wasps play a vital role in nature, and in our lives. They are superb pest controllers, picking off caterpillars and grubs left, right and centre. This means a lot less tiny jaws eating plants, both in our gardens and also out on the fields. Without their help, fields of cabbages and beds of flowers would be transformed into tattered wrecks. What useful creatures!

You probably also don’t realise how many different types of wasp there are. You will be most familiar with the black and yellow ones, the social wasps. Living together in communal nests, there are even a number of different types of these, including the largest, hornets. But there are many smaller wasps that live solitary lives. Living in a small burrow in the ground or a wall, they grab their food then take it back home, there to lay their eggs. Sometimes this is a bit gruesome as they only paralyse their prey, and the eggs hatch into grubs that eat the prey alive. But still, remember what it’d be like without them! Amongst these solitary wasps are some of the prettiest, called jewel wasps. With ruby reds and emerald greens, they are one of our most stunning insects, far prettier than any butterfly.

What of the social wasps, the black and yellow ones? Well, they are superb architects, who use a strange building material. They use paper! The wasps chew wood and the little pieces mix with their saliva to make a pulp. This they build up into walls, and then dries and solidifies into paper. Wasp nests are a marvel of construction. Light, strong and extremely intricate.

So we should appreciate wasps. But what of their nasty habit of stinging people? Well, unless you do something silly, wasps are actually very unlikely to sting you. Only if you threaten their nest or, in their view, try to attack will they respond in self-defence. And yes, this does include flapping a napkin at them. Just leave them be and they won’t bother you. They are drawn to picnics by the smell of sugary food and drinks - so keep them covered.

Wasps are friends, not foes!