Why we should love wasps

Common wasp - Richard Burkmar

Hawk Honey explains why the common wasp is a bit more feisty than normal at this time of year, and why we should cherish them rather than swat them.

So, it’s that time of year, the end of summer, when the hot summer days are but a distant memory. It’s still warm enough for a picnic or eat our lunches and dinners al fresco. However, there may be some uninvited guests as well, wasps. Yes, the familiar common wasp with its black and yellow stripes that turn up at any outside eating event be it a picnic, pub garden, an ice cream on the sea front, you name it they are sure to turn up. However, are they that malicious that they love to ruin our fun and steal our food? Let’s look a little closer.

Common wasp - Hawk Honey

Common wasp - Hawk Honey

These common wasps are known as social wasps, which means they have a queen and all of the queen’s daughters are the workers. They all work together for the benefit of the nest, a papery dome full of growing baby wasps. It starts in spring when the queen, who has spent all winter tucked away in someone’s shed or in a log pile somewhere, emerges and looks for a suitable sheltered site to build a nest. Once the nest site has been acquired, she then goes off to collect wood shavings that she will mix with water or her own saliva and turn it into a papier-mâché pulp that she will sculpt into the beginnings of a new nest. She will create some cells in which she lays some eggs and then once the eggs hatch, she feeds them some mashed up insects that she has been collecting from the local environment.

These first grubs will be the first workers who will help expand the nest and allow the queen to lay more eggs. If the nest is underground, the workers will remove balls of soil with their jaws and then collect more wood shavings from a garden fence, or a rotting tree trunk, which again, they will take back and use to expand the nest. As the nest expands, more workers are created and their job is to go out and start removing insects from your gardens, be they caterpillars, greenfly, shieldbugs, etc. They are even partial to a bit of meat and will help remove dead larger prey such as birds, rodents etc. They then mash up this food with their jaws and take it back to the nest to feed the developing grubs, which by this time are now new developing queens and males.

The new queens will be next year’s generation and the males will be the ones who will mate with new emerging queens from other nests. Once the grub has been fed, it gives a reward to its feeder by giving them a sweet sticky substance in return. The wasp loves this and goes out to collect more food so it can get more sweet rewards. The larger the nest, the more food the wasps need to collect which means more insects, like caterpillars, are removed from your garden. Wasps are the gardener’s friend.

Common wasp - Richard Burkmar

Common wasp - Richard Burkmar

Summer comes to an end and now is the time that things begin to change in the nest. The developing queens and males are ready to make the change to become adult wasps and to do that, they need to pupate. This means that all those developing grubs stop eating and the worker wasp’s job is done and their reward for all their hard work over summer after collecting all that food and excavating and building the nest, is death! Yes, not a ‘good bye’ or ‘please leave’, just death AND they’re hooked on sugar and this is why they become notorious picnic spoilers. However, this is not their intention, they just want their sugar fix, nothing more.

Often at an outside event I have put my finger in a fizzy drink held it up and had several wasps land on it and drink happily the sweet fizz from my finger, without a single sting. Unfortunately, it’s in our nature to flap our arms and run from something that can hurt us, especially if it buzzes. But things don’t intentionally want to hurt us, because our reaction would only be to kill it afterwards. No, they just want their sugar hit.

Common wasp - Richard Burkmar

Common wasp - Richard Burkmar

So, if wasps start bothering your picnic this year, put a small saucer or two of sweet drink nearby and they will happily go for that. Try not to wave your arms about, they see that as a form of aggression and will attack back. They’ve worked hard all summer removing insects (some of which you may not want munching your plants) from our gardens and their mum has shunned them, so let’s thank them and give them a little sweetness before the colder days set in and signal their demise. It’s time to love a wasp!

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