Last Friday a colleague batted a wasp to the floor and then stamped on it in front of me. I obviously didn’t make any effort to hide my disgust because he and his colleague then spent the next five minutes trying to justify his actions. They settled on the argument ‘wasps aren’t useful, we would never kill a bee.’
This only served to outrage me more. Other than the fact that a wasp is a living being and doesn’t deserve to be stamped on any more than a child, puppy or bird (or any living creature!), it made me think about just how useful wasps actually are.
There are tens of thousands of species of wasp worldwide which can be separated into two categories; social and solitary. Britain has around seven social wasp species (the social ones being the scary, stingy ones).
They’re omnivorous which means that not only do they pollinate plants and flowers, like bees, but they also prey on other insects, including caterpillars, which make them great for gardeners. In fact, the agricultural industry uses wasps as natural pesticide, so they help to keep our food organic.
Wasps are also eaten by many animals including birds, fish, frogs, mice, weasels and badgers. Their grubs are also the favourite food of the rare and protected honey buzzard.
So, contrary to what my colleagues say, wasps not only help the survival of humankind by pollinating our food and keeping pest levels down, they also keep a number of native wildlife alive.
Not only are wasps as vital to the food chain as every other creature, they are beneficial to humans in other ways. You may have seen it on various television programmes that bees can be trained to sniff out drugs and land mines. Wasps are no different and have been trained to sniff out various chemicals including drugs and human remains with the potential for them also being able to detect disease, such as cancer. Dogs have already shown a capability of alerting their owners to cancerous tumours, so it is certainly possible.
Unlike bees, a wasp colony will die out over the winter leaving only fertilised females ready to start new colonies in the spring. So the life a wasp is already short, why cut it even shorter by killing it?
Ok, I know why. People are scared of wasps for good reason. What other insect can cause something so much bigger than itself to revert to a screaming, flailing mess (spiders aren’t insects!)? Maybe my colleague heard that someone had been stung in the canteen only the week before. So if you’re not convinced that the wasp is actually very helpful, and vital to our and many cute mammals’ existence, how about this. When a wasp is distressed (which it certainly is when stepped on and left to die) it lets off a pheromone that attracts its colony to its rescue (in a defensive, stingy way). I’ve actually seen this first hand. When I first started with my current employer, another colleague was also a wasp-killer. I condemned her for her act and not ten minutes later we were visited by a number of wasps flying into the office, forcing us to shut the windows on a very hot summer day.
My husband has also experienced this, resulting in me being the person who has to show wasps the door when they fly into the house.
Humans and wasps can live in harmony though. This a wonderful story that I found on the Guardian website from someone sharing their garden with wasps on the Somerset Levels. Rather than fighting the colony, they decided to share their space and even feed them. The result was a sociable relationship with ‘a sentry wasp com(ing) to the door when they need food’. They allow the wasps to investigate their cameras, hands and arms and have never once been stung. Even better, ‘they can be comical when watched especially in sticky honey when they try to fly off and when coated, as they can get, others come and clean them up.’ (sic)
All animals have a purpose on this planet; if you take away one, hundreds or thousands of others would suffer. Sadly, it seems that unless a creature has an obvious and direct benefit for humans, they are deemed unnecessary. I remember when bees once fell into this category and now everyone cries about how they should be protected. Maybe wasps, these pollinating, insect curbing, trainable, detective, medical and social insects just need better PR. After all, if someone swiped at you as you went about your day, wouldn’t you sting them if you could?