The Wasp Tragedy: How Can We Help?

A UK wildflower meadow. Habitats like this have decline around 97% since the 1930s, mainly caused by changes in land use, human development, changes in agricultural practice or just differences in gardening habits. We need to get them back. This has had a significant impact on our invertebrate populations, especially our pollinators. (Credit: Richard Croft / Wildflower meadow / CC BY-SA 2.0)

NOTE: None of this is evidence based and is not the consensus opinion of biologists or entomologists it’s just my own rambling considerations.

If you read my recent article (…essay…Mini-book…It’s long!) about wasps you will know that not only have I started a very intense love-affair with them but there is a crisis.

Everyone knows about the bees, ‘ooh save the bees’. Bees have big, furry representatives that kids love. Bees are the teddy-bears of the insect world, they’re marketable.

Bumblebees, Bombus spp., there are over 250 species in this wonderful genus that must have one of the best genus names of all. They are mostly social, although they maintain smaller groups than the honey bees. These are probably what most people in the UK think of when they hear ‘bee’! (Credit: TimHill via Pixabay)

Wasps? Not so much.

I did google image search ‘sexy wasp’ – and in amongst the cosplays of the marvel character, Evangeline Lily and a lot of images you should google yourself if you’re into that sort of thing, I found this one! That I’d already used. I agree, it’s a very sexy wasp. (Credit: Trounce CC-BY-3.0)

I did propose on Twitter that since wasps are, like bees, social, however they are also a lot sleeker, sexier and have a propensity for getting drunk and ruining social events like picnics and barbeques we market them as “Wasps: Like bees but for grown-ups!” but I suspect that’s a little too cynical to work with the general public.

The biggest contribution you can make is in attitude.

I spoke of how my niece hates wasps because she has seen friends run from wasps. My father would kill wasps on sight, but would usher bees out of a window. What lesson did that teach me, and my siblings, about wasps? I was speaking to another person who said it’s likely for many years they’ve been misidentifying honey bees as wasps because they look so similar and because the bumble bee has become such a symbol of beehood in the UK. People run, screaming, from a wasp buzzing around their face. People flap their arms wildly. People set ‘wasp traps’ of sugar-water to kill them.

STOP!

If you have children, I don’t care how scared of wasps you might be, I want you to demonstrate a stoic understanding. What does the wasp want? It wants sugary food. It doesn’t want a fight, it doesn’t want to sting you. So be patient, let them buzz around, let them land a couple of times to scout and investigate. If you have sugar, maybe take a piece and leave it nearby away from you. Do you have a shallow receptacle you could pour a small amount of sugary drink into (not too deep or the wasp could drown). If it’s a jam sandwich they’re after pull a small piece off and leave it on the grass not far from you, or the bench not far from you – I bet you the wasp finds it and leaves you alone! They want to maximise food and minimise conflict.

Wasps hanging around bottles or cans are generally trying to sup down the carb-rich, sugary liquids. To make them less of a bother, leave a dish of some sugar-syrup, sugar water, or a bit of jam – Most of them will go to the readily available, non-guarded food source before they will bother the gargantuan ape trying to get a sip of cider!(Credit: ProsaClouds via Pixabay)

If you’re planning an event to which wasps could be attracted, lay out these snacks in advance. A small dish of sugar-water with some pebbles, as one would do for bees, will also attract wasps. Or a mutual acquaintance on Facebook mentioned that they leave a small dish of jam out because wasps love jam. Put it at a reasonable distance from your social gathering and wasps will rapidly find it and leave your food, the food they may have to fight for, alone.

We need to start teaching people wasps are not bad. They’re not “Arseholes!” as I’ve so often heard. I ask why people don’t like wasps, “Oh, wasps are arseholes!” No, they’re not! We are! Wasps do not have a multi-billion pound industry focussed on destroying picnics, BBQs, gazebo parties or lunch on the veranda. Humans do have a multi-billion pound industry focussed on killing valuable wildlife like wasps!

This is something else we need to change.

Based on the 2009 death statistics I used in my article 4 people in the UK died of wasp, hornet or bee stings. All of these people were allergic to the venom of these creatures. Their deaths we caused by anaphylaxis due to the sting – if you are not allergic the sting is painful but, unless you get stung thousands of times, relatively harmless.

By those same statistics more people died by dog attack! Yet dogs are promoted! They’re ‘man’s best friend’! Dogs have TV shows! When someone dies by a dog attack we blame the owners – they didn’t train it right, it must have been mistreated, etc. But in any given year they may kill more people than wasps!

We don’t blame the allergic person for dying of a wasp sting. Realistically their own immune system is to blame for their death, but we blame the wasp itself. In fact, neither should be blame and it’s just an unfortunate thing that happened.

Why are we willing to make excuses for dogs and not wasps? Marketing! Whether socially, by having fear, suspicion and disdain of wasps encouraged as the social norm, or the annual stories of ‘wasp plagues’ generally written as advertorials for the services of a multi-billion pound ‘pest’-control industry.

A DEADLY SWARM! This organism has been GENETICALLY MODIFIED over thousands of years. They have SPREAD like a PLAGUE across the UK. It is estimated there are now OVER 9 MILLION of these POTENTIALLY LETHAL PREDATORS in the UK and that number is RISING! They have been known to cause MULTIPLE DEATHS by BITING OFF PEOPLE’S FACES! How can we stop these PESTS!?

Just an example of how framing certain behaviours in certain ways can change perception of an animal. Now if you combine this kind of rhetoric, over a number of years, and with a multi-billion pound, publicly floated industry behind it…It’s a recipe for bullshit.
(Credit: ZapTb via Pixabay)

Wasps need better marketing and…I don’t have a TV show, I don’t have a huge audience, I don’t have much impact at all. So the best I can do is write and encourage you to start a grass-roots, word-of-mouth, viral campaign – Wasps are good! WASPS ARE GOOD! Repeat it again, WASPS ARE GOOD! We love wasps! WASPS ARE GOOD!

We have to recognise that wasps are safer than playing cricket! Wasps are safer than having a bath! Wasps are significantly safer than sex and the only people telling us to never do that are religious lunatics!

Wasps are relatively safe and, for the good they do they’re worth the tiny amount of danger.

Let’s talk about that. The pest-control industry wants you to believe that wasps are a menace that want to eat your house, kill your kids and ruin your fun!

WRONG.

Wasps are not only pollinators, like bees, seeing exactly the same drastic decline with exactly the same cataclysmic consequences for flowering plants, human crops and our lives (yes, the pollinator crisis could initiate famines causing the deaths of millions) but wasps are also predatory. They hunt and kill other invertebrates to feed to their larvae.

A lot of those invertebrates are also pests of crops or common garden plants.

I don’t mean to get conspiratorial but I will. Exterminators killing wasps means you pay them to kill their competition.

This is one of the few licensable images of ‘pest’ control products, that’s one reason I keep using it. The other reason is…Look at it. Bottles, spray-cans, tubs, boxes all full of things intended to kill species that are just trying to life their lives and find we get in the way. I can see a box that says ‘REPELS MOTHS’ – Who the fuck has a problem with moths!? Many of these products will be environmental pollutants. Ccats, dogs, foxes, birds, other invertebrate predators – they can all be killed down the food-chain by these products and, for what? Inconveniencing a human? That’s not a good reason to fuck up an ecosystem. (Credit: Alan Stanton CC-BY-SA 2.0)

No wasps means another call out to deal with flies, caterpillars, aphids etc. etc. When you pay for extermination services, especially for wasps, you’re paying for them to have more work for you to pay for later.

Wasps might be less fashionable than bees but a proper comparative study combining their ecosystem services of pollination, pest-control and other things (e.g. as food or potential medical value) might show wasps to be even more valuable than bees! That’s purely speculation, though!

We don’t have the research, we don’t have the numbers! Trying to pin down a specific value of an organism is hard enough as it is. I can only speculate. If I am making any sort of point it is that we cannot consider these species in a vacuum. We cannot look at bees as the only pollinators, nor should we only look at insects as valuable for pollination. The rich diversity of invertebrates that all have a significant effect on our habitats, ecosystems and lives means we must consider them all for all their diverse roles.

With species like wasps this is even more important because they have a negative reputation! It’s an uphill struggle to get people to recognise their value that is, actually, so overwhelmingly positive.

Look, all of these points vary. Situations are different, lifestyles are different, houses are different. If you’ve got a wasp nest in the supporting struts of your log cabin and wasps are shredding your house supports to make their nest you’ve got a decent argument for taking care of the problem and, unlike bees, I don’t know if there’s a humane way of transplanting a wasp nest.

If there isn’t, I think it’s high time we started working towards making one! Given how valuable wasps are, an ability transplant a natural nest to a man-made equivalent in a safer location much like we do with honey bees would be an exceptional step in the right direction.

Some wasps have smaller social groups and thus form smaller nests. Their structures are beautiful. This appears to be a nest of a wasp from the genus Polistes but…I’m not expect enough to identify yet so don’t take my word for it. (Credit: makamuki0 via Pixabay)

Situations will vary, but don’t call the exterminators to take out the wasp nest in the tree at the bottom of your garden 100m away from your house, you idiot! “Oh but my kids play football out there…” Well tell them to be bloody careful!

I’m getting angry again but these are the kinds of silly things people would destroy a wasp nest over rather than educate their children in respecting local flora and fauna. Those wasps will provide a valuable service of pollination and invertebrate control. I’ve never been stung by a wasp, I have been, habitually, repeatedly bitten by mosquitoes. Wasps’ll eat ‘em. That’s reason enough for me to defend them!

But this goes wider than that, too.

The mastery and control of the natural environment seems to be a subconscious driving force of human kind. I put it down to a fear of chaos, the abyss and ultimately death. However you want to think of it we cut our hair, we prune our bushes and we mow our lawns.

One amazing way you could help is to just leave a strip of your lawn to grow. Encourage a small area of meadow that takes care of itself. Especially if you have a big garden, if you can leave a 1m deep strip across the length of it, you don’t tend it, you don’t weed it, you don’t bother it at all, you will be amazed how quickly the slugs stay away from your petunias, the hedgehogs come to eat the slugs, the bees, the butterflies, the moths and the wasps attend to the wildflowers (that in any other part of the garden you may call ‘weeds’) and it will all form this tiny little native zoo at the end of your garden.

Even if you have a small garden, get some pots of perennials or even just some long pots, fill them with compost and wait and see what grows! Again, you will be stunned the amount of invertebrate life you will encourage and what that will encourage in terms of birds, butterflies, bees, wasps, if you get slugs then hedgehogs will find their way to you. If you’re anywhere near a remote area badgers are a possibility.

A wildlflower meadow patch in a garden. Obviously not everyone has a garden this big, but even a small patch dedicated to purely wild growth can have a significant impact. If every garden in the UK has a small square allowed to grow wild we would likely see a massive increase in our invertebrate (especially pollinator) numbers. (Credit: © Copyright Julian Paren CC-BY-SA 2.0)

If I could promote any change, this is it and it isn’t even about just about wasps.

There is an increasing disconnect between the human and their natural world. It has been a process steadily on-going, likely since the dawn of industrialisation.

Where the natural world once kept us in balance we have developed technologies that have moved the goalposts. Humans now exponentially flourish, propped up by our own manipulation of biological, physical and chemical processes.

I am not against progress. I am not against people having healthy lives. Some of the greatest of humanity has been born of understanding and manipulating these things. The modern hospital is a work of industry, engineering and scientific genius that is taken for granted.

But they should have gardens. They should have trees. They should have wildflowers.

Not a wasp! This is actually a hoverfly. They exhibit what is known as Batesian Mimicry – Where a non-hostile species will evolve similar appearance to a potentially dangerous species to protect themselves from predation. Hoverflies are another important species of pollinator that can be encouraged with more meadowlands. (Credit: ognisupmac69 via Pixabay)

These crises, species declines, habitat loss, extinctions, are all being facilitated by a human manipulation of the natural world.

If you want to help promote biodiversity, alleviate the population pressures on wasps, on butterflies, on bees, if you want a truly healthy world, then all you have to do is give up a fraction of your human control and let a little bit of nature in.

This is not recycling, this is not some idea where even if every person in the UK does it there will be barely any impact because of the titanic influence of industry.

You can, as an individual, make this change and it will make a huge difference. This is a case where if even the majority of people leave a little meadow space, don’t call the exterminators on that nest and show and teach their kids the glory and wonder of wasps and all the other amazing invertebrate wildlife out there, we really can change things! This is something where we can all actually make a difference.

If the people who know what they’re doing are listened to we should see more patches of land like this meadow in Oxfordshire. Rich in dandelions and fritillaries these are habitats very much in decline that really don’t need to be. Why plant imported, ornamental flowers when our native wildflowers are so beautiful and our native species adapted to them? Plus, think how much time you can save mowing! You can save the planet by literally doing less! Just don’t mow! (Credit: Jonathan A Jones CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Let your garden grow, don’t weed so much to encourage wild flowers, use fewer pesticides and insecticides and encourage natural insect predators, like wasps, to do the labour for you. Put out some pots, some plants, you can even grow hardy herbs like rosemary – It’s hardy, stands up to all but the most extreme weather, grows well in pots, smells good and tastes nice! But on its own it will become a little ecosystem.

It’s so easy, everyone can get involved and it is a situation, far from so many other hopeless situations in climate and ecology, where NO! WE REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE AS INDIVIDUALS!

How can I not show this beauty? This is Polistes dorsalis. An excellent example of the multi-functional service wasp. A polinator, a predator, and its venom is being investigated for it’s antimicrobial properties so that we can generate a new set of anti-biotics as bacteria increasingly evolve resistance to our current ones. In the future, wasps could be the reason you don’t die of a common bacterial infection! (Credit: Judy Gallagher CC-BY-2.0)

So do it! Love your wasps, love your weeds, love your invertebrates and show that to everyone, teach that to everyone.

Stop being so damn civilised. Let the wild back in.

If you want to read my original article about wasps you can find that here;
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps

Wasp scientist Prof. Seirian Sumner and her team have also just released a new paper about the value of wasps to us humans;
Full academic paper here
or
Shorter version understandble by normal humans here.

I do want to say a huge thank you to Prof. Sumner who has actually been engaging me informatively and non-judgementally as I embark on my journey into basically wanting to genetically modify myself into a full-on wasp.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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