Magazine article The Spectator

What Wasps Do for Us

Magazine article The Spectator

What Wasps Do for Us

Article excerpt

All gardeners, and all readers, have reason to thank them

Dom Perignon, Pimms, Carling Black Label, Coca-Cola -- one's as good as the other, so far as they're concerned. Even if they don't manage to drown in the stuff, they spoil the taste for drinkers by creating panic out of all proportion to their size. They destroy the ardour of al-fresco lovers in an instant. They are the joy-killers: the destroyers of summer, determined to prove that the wild world is a plot against humanity.

Is there anything good about wasps? Is their sole purpose in life to harass humans seeking the fleeting joys of summer? Does this black-and-yellow air force exist only to ruin the few fine days reluctantly given to us?

If you garden, wasps are among your best friends. The common wasp is a top predator -- capturing more than 4 million prey-loads, weighing 7.2lb per acre, every season. Their favourite prey is aphids, rose-killers and tormentors of every gardener's favourite plants.

Simon Barnes and Isabel Hardman discuss why we should be nicer to wasps:

Wasps also show many traits we humans admire: loyalty, hard work and sacrifice of the self to a greater cause. The hooliganism they go in for towards the end of the summer is not a fair representation of vespine mores. And more important even than this is the wasps' contribution to human civilisation. Wasps are responsible for the greatest single shift in our cultural history: like the invention of the internet, but far more radical. If you are reading this in a hard copy, praise the wasps: they are responsible for The Spectator . They are also responsible for Ulysses , Hamlet , The Origin of Species , the Bible, the Quran and Hello! magazine. (Of which more later.) We owe them gratitude, not hard words and flapping hands.

We never see the best of wasps because of the way they act in late summer, when their labour is done. Before that they have led exemplary lives. There are nine species of social wasps in this country, including the much-feared but comparatively mild-mannered hornet, and they're all honest toilers for most of their existence. Hornets can give a pretty fearsome sting, but you have to go out of your way to experience it. They come into the ancient category of 'this animal is dangerous -- it defends itself when attacked'.

The lives of social wasps are renewed each year when the queens emerge from hibernation in spring, already mated and sated and buzzing with fertility. They seek out a hidden place, an abandoned mammal hole or a crack in a wall or a tree, and build a nest. It will contain around 30 cells and they will lay an egg in each. That nest is highly significant.

When the queen has reared enough workers for the colony, she changes tactic. Now she can concentrate on egg-laying and building extensions to the nest: it's up to the workers to tend the grubs and they perform their duties assiduously, hunting and feeding... occasionally coming into contact with humans in their search for the nectar and other high-energy food -- like Dom Perignon -- that they need for themselves.

There is a new generation about every fortnight and a nest can contain more than 5,000 individuals, all in black-and-yellow livery, a striking example of Mullerian mimicry -- the tendency of dangerous creatures to resemble each other. It's a universal warning; threat is always more economical than action.

Eventually, if all goes well, the queen will lay a generation of male drones and queens interested only in sex, though the successful queens will change their minds once they found colonies of their own. …

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