A bad image not justified


Files are a nuisance, wasps are a pest….’ As the children’s rhyme goes. Indeed, local council environmental health departments everywhere recognized them as such. A wasps nest in the vicinity of your home is certainly cause for concern. But all creatures have a function in life: files do serve a useful purpose they help dispose of waste matter and feed other animals higher up the food chain.
And wasps? To most of s they appear to possess no redeeming feature whatsoever. Having been stung, the majority of people hate them and question their right to exist. As John Crompton points out in ‘The Hunting Wasp’, we generally tend to overreact to the presence of insects that that are far more afraid of us, and whose only desire is to escape our company. Nevertheless their sting is at least a nuisance factor and in the case of allergy sufferers, a serious health hazard, but wasps do not attack without good (in their opinion) reason. Very often, we accidentally disturb them, only to pay the painful price.
The problem is that two or three species give the rest a bad name. Vespula vulgaris and vespula germanica, the common and German wasps respectively are attracted to our food, and can ruin a picnic by challenging our every lick of ice cream, bite of sandwich and sip of drink. Barbecues are another regular battlefield as wasps love sucking the juice out of meat. They also frequent dustbins and other unhygienic places and so can pose a health risk, albeit not as much as files. Another of their vices often overlooked is that they are fond of feeding mashed honeybee flesh to their disrupt the normal routine of the hives.
This is not a complete picture however and it is necessary to redress the balance in favour of our black and yellow chums, notwithstanding the downside of course!
Together with bees and ants, wasps from the insect order hymenoptera and can be divided into two main categories: solitary and social. The former need not concern us here as they cause us no problems. They live alone or in small groups and use their delicates sting exclusively to paralyse prey for their larvae to devour alive and fresh. They can also be employed in nature pest control operations. Social wasps are so called because they from large colonies of infertile female ‘workers’ ruled by a single queen. In Britain apart from the species mentioned above, there are also the Tree, Norwegian, Saxon, Red and Cuckoo wasps plus the hornets, which rarely come into contact with us.
There is also of course the dolichovespula media or Median wasps. Since it first established itself in kent in 1985, it has spread rapidly throughout the country, provoking the tabloid press to dub it every year the ‘French killer wasps’ or the ‘Eurowasp’, blaming global warming for the superbug invasion! Indeed, it is larger than our native wasps and its sting more powerful, but it is no more aggressive despite what one reads in the paper. It will not bother you if you leave it alone, the point being that the sting of all social wasps is defensive, and will be used against anyone or thing perceived as a threat to themselves or their nest. Whatever is contained in that unlovely cocktail they inject is their secret recipe which scientists have still to analyse.
The life cycle of social wasps begins on a warm day in April, when queens emerge from hibernation and select a place for their nest, usually a hole in the ground in a tree or in our attics, Lofts and under our eaves. The structure is made from chewed up wood mixed with saliva, which forms a grey papery substance. The queen builds a dozen or so hexagonal cells and lays the first of up to thirty thousand eggs. The grubs hatch and she feeds them until they pupate. When the new adults, or imagine, appear about eight weeks later, the queen continous to lay eggs while her infertile daughter continue to build the expanding nest and feed the new larvae. In august males and female hatch, bigger and more brightly coloured than the worker ‘caste’. Males, who have slightly longer antennae are stingless and can be seen in autumn mating with the young queens and sipping nectar from ivy, the last plant in Britain to blossom. As the weather gets colder and the flowers disappear, the males and the surviving workers die. The old queen perishes too, together with the last remaining untended grbs. Heavy November rains finally destroy the nest although in milder climatic condition colonies are known to last much longer. Having fed well to build up their fat reserves for the long hard winter to come, the impregnated queens seek out a suitable sheltered spot for hibernation, such as under a fold of bark.
We must ask those who would be rid of wasps what the world would be like without them. Quite simply, there would be far fewer flowers and much less fruit and also many more files, mosquitoes and other bugs, for they pollinate the former the favour the latter as baby food. So perhaps we should be thankful for these services, even though they come at a slight cost.
If we leave wasps alone, they will not hurt us. Just as we treat with caution and respect, so we should deal with wasps. They are fascinating creatures, which really do have the right to exist as part of our ecosystem and besides being attractive are actually beneficial in more ways than one.

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