Just because it’s black and yellow, doesn’t mean it’s a wasp.
A bumblebee is not a fat hairy wasp.
The wasp-beetle is not a wasp in armour.
This fat caterpillar of the six-spot burnet moth is not just a chunky tubewasp.
The fact is most wasps aren’t even fucking black and yellow!
But don’t worry. We’re ‘We Lack Discipline‘ and we don’t judge. We might poke fun, but we don’t judge.
I’m fairly certain I’ve posted sawflies, regular flies, butterflies, trouser flies…All of this stuff and asked “Is this a wasp!?” sometimes to Professor Seirian Sumner a fucking Professor and Wasp Wizard! Imagine what a dick I must look!
I mentioned in my guide to hedge-spotting (go read it, it’s an excellent way to save £25 on a zoo ticket and enjoy just as much, if not a better, richness of species and behaviour) that you shouldn’t worry so much about IDing the stuff as you should just watching it. Where is it? What is it doing? Why is it doing it?
But eventually your brain is gonna kick in – Curiosity is natural to humans – and ask “What the fuck was that!?” and unlike with plants there’s no app for quickly identifying bugs.
This is for good reason, though. Sometimes the difference between one species and another is a tiny mark, spot, spur or hair on a place you didn’t photograph!
It’s shit, but welcome to the world of invertebrates!? Want to feel better about it? Most of these species, their Latin names, their roles – I didn’t know until after my wasp article a couple of months back. Even then, I often have to google the Latin names because some of them are ridiculous and others just…not memorable. I’m a human, not a supercomputer!
I took a photo of a wasp recently, made fun of myself for probably misidentifying it and had a doctor of Agroecology (basically wildlife in agricultural settings – e.g. understanding pests and pollinators of farmed crops) join in the gag and say how this is EVERYONE learning insects.
You’re not alone. You’re not stupid. It’s fucking tough, relax your ego, let your curiosity take over and enjoy the process of being wrong because – when it comes to inverts – it’s inevitable.
Anyway – Since the Big Wasp Survey is still on-going and I’m trying to get you all out there checking out your wasps you need to know what a wasp is or isn’t.
Obviously if it’s shaped like a caterpillar or a beetle it’s…well obviously not a wasp.
Wasps are a three-segmented insect; a head – usually a triangular shape, a thorax – the chest area which actually varies a bit in wasps, and an abdomen – its arse, which likewise varies significantly. What doesn’t vary so much is the join between the thorax and the abdomen – Wasps have a thin waist – ALWAYS.
Caterpillars are larvae, tubes of monch with the intent to metamorphose, to transform, into something different. Beetles are beetle-like and have hard wing casings called elytra that are pretty obvious.
So, that out of the way we’ll move on to things it can be hard to tell apart from wasps. I’ll start with a simple one – Is it big, puffy and fluffy? If so it’s probably a bee. Very few wasps that I know of have that degree of fluff. It’s a bumble.
Next simple one – Does it have massive, cartoony, often reddish but sometimes brown or black, eyes? If so it’s probably a hoverfly. Those large compound eyes are a hallmark of the Diptera and no matter how much they want to look like wasps or bees the hoverflies haven’t evolved out of those eyes.That’s the easy ones out of the way.
Next we have one of, in my opinion, the hardest differences to spot, Nomada bees. I have no doubt I have misidentified so many of these as wasps!
They are a type of cuckoo bee, so they lay their eggs in other bee’s nests and besides knowing what species is what on sight, which you won’t unless you’re an expert, it can be hard to tell the difference.
They go in for the black-and-yellow, or black-and-red colouration often seen in wasps. Their thorax markings often resemble wasps, they have a little pinch at the waist, making them look like wasps, I’ve even seen them flying in a manner that looks exceptionally wasp like.
I shared numerous pictures of what I hope (fingers crossed) were wasps yesterday that may very well have been Nomada bees.
So…my advice for these? Fuck it!? Ask an expert? There are online services like ispot Nature that you can submit your photos to be analysed and identified. If you feel like browsing a catalogue of images and doing the ID yourself, if you’re UK based, UK Safari has a huge range of photos you can check out.
It can be so hard because so many of the features of these bees and wasps are the same that without a specimen in hand, without being able to look at fine details in the face, on the belly, small markings on the thorax etc. it can be nearly impossible.
You will get it wrong, don’t worry about it. Wasps and nomad bees are both fascinating species, enjoy that you’ve seen one or the other!
Then we have sawflies and wood wasps. These are all hymenopterans, like wasps (and ants and bees) but they diverged slightly earlier than the Apocrita, the sub-order of wasps, ants and bees.
The single, tell-tale giveaway of a sawfly is in sizing. For one thing some of them can be chonky. Wasps vary in size but what they universally have is a abdomen that tapers to a thin waist. Sawflies don’t!
Some of them, like this green sawfly…
…Are just large all over, for all the waspy features of the wings and face it was just obvious this was too T H I C C to be a wasp.
Others, like these stem borer sawflies…
…Did look tiny and wasp like but, check the waist? They’re like a universal sized tube up through their thorax. There’s no pinch, no trademark wasp-waist between the abdomen and thorax.
So, in that sense, if you get a look it’s quite easy to tell sawflies apart. But what if you don’t get to see the abdomen? What if the wings cover it up?
Well, again it varies and is tough but a lot of wasps have medium/medium-long antennae and sawflies tend to have them shorter. That’s not a solid rule, though. So, it’s a bit like the nomad bees. Sometimes you’re just gonna have to get it wrong!
Then there are other confusing things, like tiny little carpenter bees. Solitary bees, small black bodies, three segments, quite narrow waists. They’re a minefield but what I would say is rotundity! Is it…roundish?
Wasps tend to be more elongate, longer; their abdomens, if they are a squat species, have a teardrop shape whereas bees tend to be rounded. Also keep an eye out on the back legs. Bees have ‘pollen baskets’ or corbiculae to give them their scientific name. These will usually be noticable around the back legs.
Again, it can be hard, you might have to just be wrong.
I’m constantly asking my wasp people for help with IDs and…I rarely if ever get it and I think I know exactly why.
It’s not that these academics are being rude or aloof because they’ve been positively open and friendly with me. It’s that even they’re unsure. Maybe they’ve got a 60-70% certainty but then that’s still a 30-40% chance of fucking something up very publicly!
Even the experts have other experts they go to for help!
So don’t worry about it. Make a little game of it. You know how sometimes you play a videogame and you can’t get past that bit and you die and get the ‘GAME OVER’ screen and have to try again?
Think of it like that? You’ve got as many chances to get it right as you’ve got time to spare to give it a go and the more you get out there, see, make the mistakes and learn the differences the more confidant you will be in your abilities to identify species.
I’ve spoken to many people over the years who think to make it in this world you have to be perfect at everything.
I tell ‘em stop! Hold up! The only people who EVER made it are the people who tried and if they didn’t fuck up along the way they’re not good, they’re lucky.
Fuck ups are life’s way of letting you know you’re trying. So don’t worry about getting it right, worry about trying.