The sweeter side of Wasps – The Urban Countryside

by Albert Nolan

I have received several calls and emails form distressed people wondering why there are so many “bloody wasp” around over the last few weeks. These insects are universally unpopular because of their painful sting. But behind this successful defense their lives are very interesting and they are very important in the ecology of our gardens. Fear is often based on a lack of understanding and raising awareness often helps to alleviate our notions around wildlife.

 

Our story of the wasp begins on a mild spring day. The queen emerges from her long hibernation and begins the process of starting a new colony. She is easily recognizable by her large size and longer body. Nesting sites can be in hollow trees. hay barns or in sheds. During the summer a friend of mine showed me a wasp’s nest under a roadside cone that had been left there for the last few years.

 

The queen chews up timber and fashions a papery honeycomb. She then lays eggs and these hatch into female workers. The workers expand the nest and the queen soon retires from domestic duties for a life of continuous egg production. The adults drink sweet nectar but the larva is fed upon crushed up insects. Like the ladybird this is a free and beneficial pest control service and over the course of the summer an average colony can eat over a quarter of a million greenflies.

 

Birds soon learn to identify the black and amber colour as a warning sign and leave this insect alone. Other insects have mimicked the warning colours and this gives them a measure of protection from predators. You will often find hoverflies with these colours but they have no sting and are quite harmless.

 

As the summer comes to an end and temperatures begin the fall the queen will lay special eggs that will hatch into males. There sole role is to mate with the queen and this takes place while they are flying. Swarms of sex starved men will follow her through the air and on average it takes 30 males for successful fertilization to occur. A few days ago I found a queen trying to cross the road and she was weighed down by 7 males.

 

The queen finds a secure place to spend the winter and the rest of the colony will die out. With no young to look after the workers are free and head off on their last sugar binge. Unfortunately our liking for sweet things brings them into contact with us. My young daughter was stung the other day and she now has a genuine fear of them. When one comes into the house I remain calm and try not to panic. We caught one in a bug pot and had a good look and she said it had lovely colours but they were not very nice. If you run around flapping your arms and trying to hit it, it will sting you in self defense. A chemical pheromone is released that encourages other wasps to attack. Try not to panic and gently brush it away. With the advent of cold nights the wasps will soon die out.

My grandmother used to place an unwashed jam on the window sill and the poor things used to eat the jam and fall in. little did she know that when her back was turned I used to rescue them and set them free.  Comments/Questions to albert.nolan@rocketmail.com or 0894230502

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