Buzz Off!

Now some folks don’t mind creepy crawlies (aka insects); others may take a keen interest in them; although (I suspect) yet more will probably do their best to avoid the them altogeter.  Whichever category you fall into, I’ll bet that there is one insect that almost all of us love to hate (yes I have to hold my hand up to being guilty to this too) and that is the wasp.

Just the very word brings to mind being buzzed at, annoyed by and even potentially attached by (or at least it feels like it!) these much disliked critters – but does the wasp deserve the contempt we give them?

To begin with, when we think of a wasp, we think of the black and yellow stripped insect, whose speciality it is to ruin any late summer picnic – but these pesky yellow jackets – social wasps – only make up a tiny 1% of the entire world wasp population (which is over 100,000 species worldwide).  So although, when it comes to wasps, these are the ones that tend to be in the forefront of our minds, there are in fact a whole host of other wasps – solitary wasps – who go about their business largely unnoticed by us.

As their name suggests, these wasps are solitary in nature and are largely parasitic.  Chances are, you probably wouldn’t even identify them as wasps, as most are very small and dark coloured – in total contrast to their more garish cousins.  They’re described as parasitic because they lay their eggs into a host – usually a poor unfortunate insect or spider – when the eggs develop and hatch, they have food a plenty to start them out in life.  Whilst this sounds gruesome, it can be an extremely beneficial means of pest control.  Did you know that parasitic wasps were first used over 100 years ago in helping to control whitefly in greenhouses?  They were so successful that they proved far more effective than any chemical pesticide!

And its not only solitary wasps that are good at keeping pests down – our old strippy friends, the social wasps, are equally effective at hoovering up aphids and other sap sucking pests, as well as keeping spiders and other insect populations in check.

All wasps have a common ancestor with bees; unfortunately for them, the wasps don’t enjoy the fluffy, cuddly image that bees enjoy; but that is unfair, as many wasps are equally valuable pollinators.  In fact, the fig tree is exclusively pollinated by wasps – so no wasps, no figs!  Many species of figs have their own specific species of wasp – who knew!

As well as figs, wasps pollinate many other plants, including a vast array of orchids, so they are definitely a vital part of the ecosystem – many a time it’s asked – what is the purpose of wasps? – but they do have a purpose after all!

More recently, wasps have been found to provide yet more bounty – certain species of wasp venom is currently being researched for use in cancer treatment – scientists believe that a toxin that is present in the venom attacks cancerous cells, whilst leaving healthy cells untouched.  Studies are ongoing, but if this proves a viable treatment, it could most definitely be a life saver.

Wasps have also shown us how to make paper!  Paper wasps created their nests by chewing wood, turning it into a pulp, which is akin to that used to create paper.  It took us a long time to observe what they were doing and to figure out how they were doing it – indeed wasps had their paper some 2000 years before we finally caught on – but it was the study and understanding of how they do it that has enabled us to get our own papyrus fix.

Wasps also provide food for others – although they are able to defend themselves and their colonies by their formidable ability to sting (and sting and sting – for, unlike bees, they have no barb in their stings, enabling them to sting multiple times, manufacturing more venom as required).  This puts off many a would-be predator – but there are a fearsome few who boldly go where others fear to munch – such as bee-eater birds, roadrunners and honey buzzards.

Even if we fail to appreciate the wasp, many other insects show their flattery in the most sincerest form – by imitation.  The vivid yellow and black markings on the social wasps are a warning sign to others to leave well alone (it definitely works on me!!) and this has led other insects to mimic their markings to afford themselves similar protection – these include hover flies and wasp beetles.  This is, of course, a con trick, as these mimics do no have the stinging ability of their idols – but many a predator wouldn’t want to take the chance and will be put off at the sight of them.

Wasps also hold the title of being the tiniest winged insects in the world – this accolade goes to the adorably named, Fairyfly, which is not a fly, but a wasp and measures a minute 0.5mm (0.02inches) – compare this to the largest wasp in the world – the Asian Giant Hornet, that measures a terrifying 2 inches (50cm) with a 3 inch wingspan (76 cm) – ahh!

So next time you find yourself flapping your arms around at an annoying wasp, maybe pause to think that there is much to thank these busy buzzers for!

Published by candy hunter writer

Self publishing author - Childrens books. First book - Chuckle with Chumleigh; recently launched - Chumleigh and the Festive Secret and Chuckle with Chumleigh Again - available on Amazon.

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