What's Up with Wasps? Blaine: Wasps Play Very Crucial Role in Ecosystem

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

What's Up with Wasps? Blaine: Wasps Play Very Crucial Role in Ecosystem


Last summer, I was on a mission to photograph native bees as part of a statewide monitoring program. After tramping around prairies with my camera, I'd download the photos -- only to find that lots of my bee shots were photo bombed by wasps.

The wasps that sneaked in my photos were part of a large group called the solitary wasps. They diverted my attention enough to inspire my August column.

As cool as solitary wasps are, there's a group of equally fascinating wasps called social wasps. These notorious wasps begin to create problems in September. People ask me in a panic every fall, "What can I do about these bees? They're everywhere!"

Time for "Wasps: The Sequel."

First, let's not blame bees. Nine times out of 10, the criminal in question is yellowjacket, which is a wasp. Yellowjackets are the bad boys of the insect world -- only they're not boys. The ones we see are sterile females. At the slightest provocation, they will sting anything and everything. Your mere presence -- or, the very fact that you exist -- can provoke a yellowjacket.

Making matters worse, these ill-tempered insects can sting repeatedly. Unlike bees, yellowjackets do not lose their stinger once plunged into a victim's skin. They're armed with fully automatic hypodermic needles.

Yellowjackets are around all summer, but we tend not to notice them until fall. By this time of year, their colonies experience a population explosion. Some colonies comprise thousands of individuals. That's a lot of mouths to feed.

The female workers are desperate to provision the colony. Their mainstays, protein-packed caterpillars and grubs, are harder and harder to find by September. They have to search longer and harder.

To fuel their foraging, they turn to sugar. (Why not?) Garbage cans and picnic areas are a bonanza for the desperate wasps. Apple cores, candy wrappers, pop cans -- just about any sugar fix will do.

The majority of the yellowjackets we see are German yellowjackets, or Vespula germanica. This aggressive, invasive species hails from Europe. It's purported to have arrived in Montreal in the 1960s and is now present throughout the world. Its notorious reputation follows it wherever it goes.

Not all black-and-yellow striped insects should be judged by the behavior of yellowjackets, nor wasps in general. Bald-faced hornets -- which are wasps, and not true hornets -- are among the most misunderstood native insects.

Cream markings on a black background make this insect look bald. …

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