Wasps can transform a summer picnic into a mad scramble for safety, especially for those who are allergic. But wasps aren’t all bad.
Like bees, sawflies, and ants, wasps are in the Hymenoptera order. All these insects have, at one stage or another, four transparent wings and females often have stingers. Therein lies the problem. As a female wasp hunts down food for herself and/or her colony, she will protect herself, her family, and her food sources with extreme prejudice. In the world of insects, wasps are surprisingly intelligent.
There are over 100,000 different types of wasps (Vespidae) around the world. They tend to have long, slender bodies with a telltale wasp-waist, between the thorax and abdomen. Most wasps have two pairs of wings, though some are wingless. Wasps dangle their legs as they fly and they all have a nasty stinger. Hornets are a subspecies of wasp that are particularly aggressive. Hornets tend to have wider heads and more rounded abdomens than other wasps. Hornets can sting and bite. The variety is really pretty amazing. It’s a shame they are so painful.
Some wasps are solitary and some are social insects. Most wasp species are solitary, meaning they live alone. Social wasps live in colonies, led by a queen. Some wasps burrow in the ground, some use mud to create apartment complexes, while others build paper nests. In these nests, the queen begins laying eggs. These eggs hatch into female workers. In late summer, some eggs hatch into male drones, whose sole purpose (in their very short lives) is to mate with the queen, after which, they die. We have two major social wasps in California: yellowjackets and paper wasps. Paper wasps tend to avoid us, whenever possible. Most social wasps are predators, killing many garden pests each year. As resources become scarce and colony size grows, these wasps become scavengers. These are the ones that cause the most problems for us.
A wasp can sting multiple times and it really hurts. I used to get them caught in my long hair, as a child. There is a hornet in Japan, the Asian giant hornet, that has a stinger that is one-quarter of an inch long and it kills 30 to 40 people in Japan each year. Yikes! Did you know that only female wasps have stingers? The stinger is actually a modified egg-laying organ. Scientists say that hornet stings are more painful than wasp stings, because they contain more venom (acetylcholine). I think they all hurt and are worth avoiding. Swarms can be deadly. That being said, wasps can also be very helpful in the garden.
Wasps as beneficial insects
Adult wasps mostly eat plant matter, especially sweet nectar, sap, pollen, and rotting fruits. As they fly from flower to flower, collecting nectar and pollen, wasps also pollinate your crops. There are even wasps that have evolved specifically to pollinate figs. No wasps, no fig bars! Wasps are frequently released in agricultural fields as natural ‘biocontrols' of many common pests. The adult wasps lay their eggs on or in these pest insects. As the eggs hatch, they devour their host. (Gruesome, right? It’s brutal world out there.) Some wasps, such as the braconid, are so tiny that you’ll never see them, but they are extremely helpful in your garden and landscape. These beneficials parasitize hornworms, apple maggots, orange tortrix moths, mealybugs, aphids, orangeworms, armored scale, armyworms, artichoke plume moths, and many other pests. Some species of wasp are believed to carry certain yeasts to grapes used in winemaking!
In the case of wasp stings, an ounce of prevention is, well, you know! Use these tips to prevent getting stung in the first place:
If you are unlucky (or careless) enough to get stung by a wasp, you can reduce the discomfort with these tips:
If an allergic reaction occurs, get medical attention IMMEDIATELY.
Did you know that the golden paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) is the only insect on Earth that has been shown to use facial recognition to identify individuals? Maybe that’s why some people get stung more than others…
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!