As if you didn’t know it’d be a wasp! But look at it.
It’s the wasp I show people to use as a crowbar to talk about wasp diversity. The first thing people who don’t know wasps say when you show them this little beauty, or any of their family, the chrysididae, is “Is that a wasp?!”
The ruby-tail is a teddy-bear, it’s a disarmer, it’s a bright, bold, colourful, shiny, beautiful door-opener to get people to reconsider their opinions on an absolutely massive, and misunderstood, diverse group of insects.
They’re a stark contrast to the sleek, sexy femme fatales, the vespines, the social wasps, which so many people associate with the word ‘wasp’, with their sportscar good looks and danger-colouration.
Ruby-tails are cute.
The most common species in the UK is Chrysis ignita, however there are other species and they can be quite difficult to tell apart, particularly in a living specimen. Typically they are quite small, around 5-10mm in length, with a green-blue head and thorax and a ruby-red abdomen. They are drop-dead gorgeous!
But, like all these species, their appearance pales when considering their lives and behaviours. And this is why I have put this little wasp as number one on my list. Because these are amazing creatures.
They are a kleptoparasite – a species that steals resources from others – in this case because they are a nest parasite. They lay their eggs in the nests of other species (mostly solitary potter or mason wasps (eumenids) or mason bees (megachilids) but they are known to parasitise other wasps and bees) where their young larva will then consume the hosts eggs or larvae, and possibly any food resources the host has put in the nest.
For this reason they are known as ‘cuckoo wasps’ as this behaviour is similar to the most famous nest parasite, the cuckoo.
Many parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps and bees behave very differently from Chrysids. They often have long ovipositors – their egg-laying apparatus – to sneakily penetrate into a nest to lay their eggs, avoiding conflict.
The ruby-tail is far bolder. They will watch a nest to see when it is clear, back themselves up into it and lay their egg. They go straight into the nest! Surely this leads to conflict?
Well sometimes, but they’ve adapted means to deal with that. Firstly their exoskeleton, that shimmering jewel body-armour is just that – armour. It is quite thick to prevent stinging attacks, it has concave sections (most visible on the abdomen) that could help prevent stings or else help it to ball-up when it is in danger and escape harm. There are some damn dandy smooth criminals!
And that’s before we even get to the cuticular hydrocarbons.
These chemical compounds are present on all insects and seem to primarily exist to prevent desiccation – drying out. However they play a very important role as chemical signatures. In social insects the cuticular hydrocarbons can identify nest-mates, their roles or status in the hierarchy, their age etc. Think of it like your mate who always wears the same fragrance no one else does. You’ll know it’s them by that signature scent.
There is evidence that cuckoo wasps, possibly even our Chrysis here, can mimic the hydrocarbon signatures of their host species. If they are recognised visually then they’re in for a bad time. However if they meet in the dark, either at night or in the lightless hole of a nest, they can come face-to-face with the host and not be recognised as an intruder. It’s the James Bond of wasps, it’s a suave and gorgeous little spy.
It’s a demonstration of an evolutionary arms race – two competing lives, the host and the parasite, each trying to do their own thing whilst preventing the other from doing theirs.
As a result the parasite species must adapt methods and behaviour to avoid detection and protect itself from defensive attacks. Meanwhile the host species must evolve methods and behaviour to detect potential invaders and prevent them from exploiting their labours and preventing them from raising offspring.
And to cap it all off this is technically an aculeate wasp – a ‘stinging’ wasp, at least by classification. But a ruby-tail is unlikely to ever sting you. Their stinging apparatus is used almost exclusively as an ovipositor to lay eggs. They have no venom.
This wasp is a beautiful, charismatic, pacifist spy and invader! It’s complex, it’s an enigma, a species that leaves a lot to figure out. From a human moral point of view shoving your babies into someone else’s nursery to have them consume the offspring of the host seems terrible. But nature has no regard for such morality.
How is our opinion coloured by the fact that it’s this beautiful pacifist parasitising the nests of species that are often larger, stronger and can sting? The hosts have evolved attack mechanisms, the ruby-tail has evolved defences!
And what is more powerful in our consideration of them? The ‘halo effect’, the psychological heuristic of associating goodness with pretty things, or that reputation, heavy, negative and dripping misunderstanding, that comes from the word ‘wasp’?
The purpose of this series of articles is to get people to think more deeply about how they consider insects. To see that there is beauty in them and to go out and look for it. To think of what they consider beautiful or valuable. Whether they even consider insects beautiful or valuable at all!
The ruby-tailed wasp is such a magnificent poster-child for this for all the reasons I’ve written about. They are complex and in consideration of them you are forced to confront prejudices, biases and how you perceive the natural world – particularly from the point of view of moralising it from a human perspective – often a dangerous route to go down.
I want to get people to appreciate the nitty-gritty of life. But some are not comfortable when confronted with the reality of the beautiful ballet of brutality that life truly is. They deny it, or close themselves off from it and their opinions on the natural world can often fail to have balance, nuance or knowledge as a basis.
Their ideas about the natural world become very human-focussed, anthropocentric, rooted in concepts of human value, morals and judgements and informed by human factors, by social pressures, by media presentation, common narratives, word-of-mouth, folklore and public opinion.
So how do we open that door?
How do we encourage people to delve deeper than superficial reputations, the zeitgeist, or one-off media presentations that may skew ideas away from nuance and complexity to present a simple, human-digestible narrative?
Having a charismatic hook definitely helps. Having species like the ruby-tailed wasp that are, of themselves, challenging to those very narratives is a great way to open doors. I do not want to use beauty to appeal, but beauty is appealing and if it can be used to pry open the mind and get people to think deeper on a subject, I will use it.
Maybe the ruby-tailed wasp has some lessons for us.
Present well, evolve to protect ourselves from attack rather than to be the attackers, observe our targets, adapt to be accepted by those hosts, lay our knowledge and wait, and hope, that it may grow.
When and Where to See Them
Ruby-tailed wasps are active from around April-September and are pretty widespread across the UK. Keep an eye out for them around areas with bricks, walls, dunes etc. where their hosts may make their nests. I have had huge success around late June and through July seeing them eating on umbellifers (big umbrella-like flowers such as hogweed or carrot), so look out for those.
I hope you find one and can check out this adorable little insect that gives me so much joy and inspiration.
If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.
Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.
My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.
Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.
Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.
The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.
Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.
Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.
Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.