Sat 26 September 2020

John Mitchinson on why we should cut the pub garden pest some slack.

As this turbulent summer draws to its close, there’s one conversation I’ll be pleased to leave behind: the one in which a needlessly harassed drinking companion asks me: “What is the arsing point of wasps?”

I’m tempted to ask: what’s the point of anything? But that kind of ethical enquiry plays badly at barbecues, and I find myself trotting out a compelling list: they pollinate more plants than bees; they consume a vast amount of other insect pests (up to five tons a year for the average nest); they taught the ancient Chinese the secret of paper-making; their venom is being studied for use in cancer treatments; their larvae offer a sustainable alternative to meat.

Also, which wasps do you mean? There are 9,000 species in the UK alone. That usually does the trick, for a while, but wasp-haters – much like the insects themselves – are persistent. “Why don’t they just leave us alone?’ “Bees don’t bother us like wasps do.”

They belong here, they work hard and they’re just doing their job.

It’s true, bees don’t. Honeybees are, essentially, wasps that evolved into vegetarians. Wasps – luckily for us – are relentless carnivores. Or at least their larvae are. This is the sad bit, my final play in the ‘wasps are annoying bastards’ exchange. “They’re dying,” I say. “Hard-working females who are slowly starving to death.”

By late summer, the wasp queen’s egg-laying suddenly switches its purpose from creating new workers to creating the new generation of queens and drones. Amazingly, this tends to happen at the same time across the whole population – there can be a thousand wasp nests in a single square mile – and the sexual brood leave their nest to join a swarm where they mate and mingle with newbies from other nests.

Once this happens the original queens stop laying. This means no new larvae. No new larvae means no food for the now redundant worker females who have hitherto used their impressive mouthparts to chew up beetles and aphids and bits of chicken sandwich into nutritious pap for their young sisters.

Because – and here comes the pathos – those stripy adult wasp bastards can chew but they can’t swallow. All they can do is use their slender proboscises to suck sweet nectar from the mouths of the larvae in return. With no larvae, they must search relentlessly for other sweet sources of nectar to suck – nectar from flowers, juice from windfall apples, Coke from your glass, jam from your sandwiches. Tough gig.

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So, try to be kind: remember, they don’t want to sting you. They’ll all be dead soon and even the new queens who crawl into cracks and crevices to hibernate have an awful survival rate (maybe 1 out of every 2,500 that get fertilised). Don’t even ask about the males.

And when you read the now annual Daily Mail story about an ‘invasion of drunk German wasps’, bear in mind that they aren’t drunk, they’re not German and they’re not ‘invading’. 

They belong here, they work hard and they’re just doing their job. 

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