As a beekeeper, I have been asked this question many times.
The implication is that wasps are of no use to humans, so their existence is puzzling.
So I thought, why not ask a wasp, and get a decent answer to the conundrum?
I managed to catch Vespula the queen wasp on a warm day in April, while she was slowly waking up after her long winter sleep in a garden shed.
You squash us, poison us, shoo us off
“Thank goodness,” were her first words, as she untangled her stiff middle legs from where they were clamped over her wings, and unfurled her antennae. “I’m still here, so that means no hungry bird or spider found me over Christmas.”
“So what use are you wasps to us?” I asked her.
“I take exception to that. What use are you to us, is a much better question. You squash us, poison us, shoo us off. All spring and most of the summer I toil away, as a single mother, making my nest out of chewed wood pulp and laying eggs and then catching countless hundreds of insects to feed my babies — insects that you humans think of as pests. Flies, gnats, midges. Look what we wasps do for you!
“Oh and also, we pollinate a lot of crops, to get nectar for ourselves. It’s not all done by your precious bees.”
“So you don’t eat the insects yourself, then?”
“Can’t do it. We adult wasps don’t have the mouth parts. I can catch them and chop them up, though. Then my babies digest the chitin and feed me a bit of sweet stuff that I can suck up. That keeps me going.”
“It sounds like a hard-working life,” I said.
“Well, once the babies have pupated and hatched into workers, they take over my other duties and I can focus on the main job, which they can’t do: laying eggs. I can lay 100 in a day.”
“A queen honeybee can lay 2,000 in a day.”
“Lucky old her. She doesn’t have any other job. She’s waited on hand and foot by her workers. No, I can work up to a colony of 4,000 or so, while a bee hive can have 50,000.”
“Four thousand still seems a lot, when we humans put a foot into a wasps’ nest.”
look where you put your clumsy feet
“Don’t you think it’s reasonable for us to defend our home? Anyway, why not look where you put your clumsy feet, especially when picking blackberries.”
“You’ve said wasps eat insects and nectar, which is useful to us. So why is it that you and your daughters are such a pest around picnics, and pub beer gardens?”
“You mean, in late summer?”
“Yes. August. School holidays. Just when we humans want to eat outside.”
“Let me explain. In late July my nest stops producing workers. We build queen cells and drone cells instead, to make thousands of new princesses and what you might call princes. We co-ordinate the effort with all the other nests in the area, so it’s a wild, sexy party time for the princesses to meet lots of males from other nests and get fertilised.
“Then — no more larvae are produced. So nobody to feed sweet stuff to the workers. While the new mated queens hunt for a safe place to overwinter, the starving workers beg for food anywhere they can smell it — and sometimes get into beehives to steal the honey.”
Vespula falls silent, thinking of the sad end of most of her daughters and sons, condemned to die of starvation at the end of the summer.
“You’ve made a good case,” I say. “Your bad reputation isn’t well deserved.”
“I mean, why not pick on rats, or cockroaches, or hookworms?
“What’s the point of them?”
Later, I managed to have a word with Vespula’s big cousin, Vespa the queen hornet, who I found battering her head against an upstairs window. She’d spent the winter hidden under a curtain rail. I opened the window for her and before soaring off, she asked me to make clear that her finished nest will contain only 400 or so workers, since she can lay only two or three eggs a day. She is precious and rare. Oh, and that only one person in the UK has ever been hospitalised for a hornet sting, so her fearsome reputation is ill-deserved.
And one more thing: that she does love mulberries.
So having a mulberry tree in your garden will enable you to see this glorious insect — and perhaps distract her from the tea table.
But although we beekeepers have to live with wasps — and may even reluctantly enjoy seeing a hornet hawking the occasional bee — we have to keep a lookout for a much more serious pest: the Asian hornet.
This has made its way across the world and is now commonly seen in France. It is a darker, slightly smaller hornet than our native one, and unlike ours it is aggressive and builds enormous nests high in trees. A hive of honeybees stands no chance against these fearsome aliens.
But beekeepers are determined not to be beaten by this menace. They are already planning a defence, with cleverly designed traps and specially adapted hives.
Wasps and hornets belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and ants. The most familiar are the social wasps, of which there are nine UK species.
Banded in yellow and black or orange and black, their summer nuisance factor belies the fact that the majority lead a solitary life.
Some sting and immobilise other invertebrates to feed to their larvae. Others, such as the parasitoid wasps, lay eggs directly into the bodies of their hosts.
Wasps play a vital role controlling numbers of more prolific groups of invertebrates, including many pests of plants and commercial crops.
The hornet genus Vespa is distinctive. All species within the genus are large wasps with a characteristic head shape — in dorsal view, the ‘temples’ of the head are widened. Vespa crabro also has a completely yellow face and brown mesoscutum (the top of the thorax).
Vespa crabro is the only indigenous hornet throughout northern and western Europe and northern Asia.
Vespa velutina, the so-called Asian hornet, has been accidentally introduced from south-east Asia to France, where they have colonised huge swathes of the country where the native bee population is under threat.