Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Don't be put off by wasps

It is a sad fact of life that wasps are not the most popular of insects! Even people who may profess to the enjoyment and appreciation of wildlife can be remarkably intolerant of these busy, buzzy totems of an English summer. The derogatory term ‘waspish’, meaning easily angered, stems from the perception that wasps are quick to sting and I am certain that it is this fear that sets us so strongly against them. As a consequence of this many people only see wasps in terms of their sting; a yellow and black striped menace to be avoided, swatted or sprayed. Yet, this is such a blinkered view of what is a tremendously interesting group of insects. Social wasps, of which we have eight species, have a complex society, centred on the colony’s nest, with a queen and her workers. Nests are marvels of engineering; fabricated from wood fibres and mixed with saliva to form a durable paper. Watch a wasp as it works with its mandibles to remove wood fibres from your fence and you will see what I mean.

Our most familiar species are the common wasp and the German wasp, similar in appearance but distinguished by differences in the facial pattern and by the markings on the abdomen (though these may be surprisingly variable). If you are fortunate enough to encounter a nest, then the variegated mixtures of shades of cream, brown and white will distinguish the nest of a common wasp from the more uniform grey paper produced by the German wasp. Alongside these two species are other, less commonly encountered species including the tree wasp which, despite its name, often nests at ground level. Then, as with many other insect groups, there are the recent colonisers from Europe, extending their breeding ranges northwards thanks to the effects of global climate change. It is one of these, the median wasp, that has been responsible for the over-reaction of much of our tabloid press. Headlines describing the arrival of French killer wasps that can attack without warning are not only alarmist but fall well wide of the mark and only add fuel to the fire of vespine prejudice. What the authors of these articles ignore (other than the facts), and what the readers miss out on, is an appreciation of the benefits that wasps bring to us. Social wasps feed on many of the insect pests that impact on our flowers and vegetables. They also visit flowers for nectar and play a valuable role in pollination. As with all things, knowledge brings understanding and understanding brings appreciation. So take the time to learn about wasps, understand them and appreciate them in the same way you appreciate other wildlife.

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