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Saturday, 5 September 2020

Wasps : Friend or Foe !

Like them or loathe them, and I don't think many of us do like them, wasps seem to become so annoying at the end of summer - have you ever wondered why?

Seirian Sumner is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at University College London, and she has recently written an article titled 'Why wasps become so annoying at the end of summer' which I now share with you.

"The sausages are sizzling, the burgers browned, and the beer is cold. You’re all set for the perfect end-of-summer BBQ. Alfresco dining, drinks in a garden of a country pub, ice-creams – we grasp at the last shreds of summer, precious times with loved ones before an uncertain winter of local lockdowns and Zoom.

And then an unwanted visitor arrives.

Jazzily dressed, trim-waisted, your uninvited guest is brimming with confidence. She’s carefree and cocky – anyone’s sweet drink is hers for the taking. If you stand in her way or brush her aside, you’ll find she’s got a nasty surprise in her stripy derriere.

As the end of the summer approaches, so does wasp season, when these hated insects start to bother us at our picnics and beer gardens. It happens every year, without fail, and feels especially rude at a time when we’re counting the few days we have left for outdoor, coronavirus-friendly socialising.

There are no silver linings to a pandemic-gripped world. But one thing it has perhaps given us is a word to explain the late-summer antisocial behaviour of wasps: furlough. And as someone who spends their time researching wasps, a word to excuse their bad behaviour is pretty exciting. If you are one of the many people furloughed right now, you are especially well placed to understand the late-summer wasps.


furloughed wasp’s playground, photo credit Jay Si

Worker wasps
Despite appearances, wasps only tend to upset your outdoor life at the end of the summer. There is, in fact, plenty of wasp action throughout the summer, but you are not interesting enough for them to bother with at that time. It is very likely that the wasp you swatted at your BBQ last weekend has spent the summer removing caterpillars from your vegetable patch, or aphids from your tomatoes.

That wasp was part of mother nature’s team of pest controllers: without wasps, we would need to use a lot more pesticide to keep our lettuces whole and tomatoes aphid-free. Wasps are good; they are natural enemies of other (even peskier) insects.

To that hard-working mid-summer wasp, your prosecco luncheons and BBQ beers were a bore, because what she was after was protein. She is a hunter, a worker. In mid-summer, her purpose is to provide her baby siblings with protein. She is a sterile cog in a big superorganismal machine, driven by evolution to pass on her genes by raising siblings. Usually, the protein she hunts is other insects (garden caterpillars or flies). She brings prey to the colony where there are thousands of baby siblings to feed.

She might chew the prey up a little (and perhaps ingest some too) before feeding it directly to a larva, but the bulk of the protein goes to the babies. In return for her hard work, the larva will give her a carbohydrate-rich sugary secretion. This is thought to be the main mode of nutrition for adult worker wasps. Each colony will produce several thousand worker wasps and they are kept very busy for much of the summer feeding these brood; with the drive of a drug addict, they are hooked on the sugary secretions from the lips of their baby siblings.


Summer leave
As summer progresses, the colony grows into a citadel with up to 10,000 workers; concurrent with this growth in worker numbers is brood pupation. When a larva is fully fed (at about two weeks of age), it is ready to metamorphose into a beautiful adult wasp. It will spin its own pupal cap and it no longer needs the care of its adult siblings.

Not all brood pupate at once; there are still many larvae left to feed. But the ratio of workers to larvae shifts, and as summer tips into autumn, this ratio shifts further, leaving more and more workers under-employed and – importantly – without their sibling-administered sugar fix. They have, in effect, been furloughed. And like furloughed humans, their behaviour changes accordingly.

Now they look for sugar away from the colony – often at your picnics. In the absence of those easy sugary feasts, they visit flowers: pollinating, just like bees. In fact, wasps can be as effective at pollination as some bees. In evolutionary terms, your picnic is a relatively novel distraction.

Such behavioural shifts arise in response to the needs of their society; shifting demands are perceived by individual workers and result in changes in how genes are expressed in their brains. Inside these insect brains lie some clues about how helping behaviour evolves and what the molecular machinery is behind it.


A wasp pollinating, photo credit Paul Reeves

Inside wasp brains
My team is researching the molecular machinery underpinning the behaviour of these wasps to understand how and why social traits evolve. The worker wasps you see at your picnic are part of one of the most complex biological products of evolution found in the natural world: a superorganismal colony.

Just like a honeybee hive, each colony is headed by a single mother queen who lays all the eggs; her early season offspring are the sterile workers who help raise more brood and eventually rear the “sexuals” (males and next year’s queens). The queen, workers and sexuals all look and behave very differently, so much so that you might mistake them for different species. They depend on each other as different components of the superorganismal “machine”. What is extraordinary is that they are all produced from the same building blocks – they have a shared genome. This is possible because genes are expressed differently.

Understanding how genomes evolve to produce such contrasting but integrated components of a superorganism remains one of the big outstanding questions in evolutionary biology. That wasp at your picnic is a highly honed product of evolution with an important role in a society that outstrips our own in complexity and coordination.

No one likes their picnic plagued with wasps, but with some understanding of the biology behind their behaviour, everyone can adapt to respect them. The pandemic has forced changes in our own behaviour and we have adapted. If there are any silver linings to the challenges we currently face, perhaps one is that we can empathise a bit more with these misunderstood and important insects."

Words/pictures and more from original article here

Now if you may have a picnic or late summer BBQ planned, I hope you find it wasp free, and if you should be looking for lower carb burger recipes, have a look here and here


You will find a variety of articles and recipe ideas within this blog, but not all may be suitable for you. If you may have any food allergies, or underlying health issues these must always be taken into account. If you are a diabetic and not sure how certain foods may affect your blood sugars, test is best, i.e. use your meter.

All the best Jan

42 comments:

Tom said...

...one day recently a nest of them interrupted my day!

Divers and Sundry said...

We have wasps here on the patio -several kinds- but have never been bothered by them. I try to think of them as pollinators ;)

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

What an interesting study being conducted. I learned a lot about the wasp brain. The only thing I've ever been told is, they build their nests in a different location each year. That seems to be true based on my experiences with them.

CJ Kennedy said...

They are nasty and siting without provocation

Jo said...

I must admit that I'm not a fan of wasps but I suppose they have their place in the world.

Sondra said...

I give them a wide berth and try to stay out of their way..I did not know half of those facts about wasp behavior...so Thanks!

Bob Bushell said...

I love Wasps, everyone should love them Jan'

Valerie-Jael said...

Interesting article, thanks for sharing! Valerie

Laurie said...

I know they do some good to our world but I still hate to see them invade my space, or am I invading theirs,,, mmmm,,,,

Mary Kirkland said...

I have a bee phobia so anything bee, wasp, hornet, ect is counted in that phobia. As long as they stay away from me they're fine.

Diane said...

What a fun article for some reason this year we have had very few wasps.

Hugs Diane

Christine said...

Interesting.

Carola Bartz said...

Thankfully we don't have too many wasps here, only a few and we can handle that. We are actually quite fascinated observing them how they cut off a piece of food and then transport them away. Yes, I would prefer to eat outside without them, but they are also kind of entertaining.

bill burke said...

I admire the wasps and the work they do but I keep my distance. :)

Elephant's Child said...

What a fascinating article.
Many thanks. We have very few wasps here.

Martha said...

Not a fan of wasps, but this is really interesting!

J C said...

Oh my gosh, this is such an awesome post. I couldnt stop reading once I started. And I always thought, like bees, the worker wasps would be all males. Now I am not even sure about the bees. These girls work hard and long hours, and they deserve a little sugar at the end of their shift. Thanks for posting this. I love learning new things about nature. Happy long weekend. Put a little dish of sugar water out for the wasps.

CraveCute said...

We have many right now and I've seen them on the goldenrod and boneset flowers too.

happyone said...

Interesting to read!! I got stung by a wasp this year!!

peppylady (Dora) said...

Usual this time of year they seem be quite a few yellow jackets and such. Lot less this year.

Margaret D said...

Interesting read.
We also have wasps which were introduced and now they are a nuisance.
Fortunately for us we didn't see but one last summer.

Phil Slade said...

Thank you for that very detailed "life of a wasp". It is a shame that we humans kill so many wasps when all they want is our sugar. When we go to Greece in two weeks we expect to be pestered by them just before dusk when they become super hungry. The local waiters have a great and super fast technique for swatting them. Or, just put a little sugary snack out for them and in theory they leave our baklava and ice cream alone.

Anu said...

Hello.
Interesting post. Thank you.
Take care.

Iris Flavia said...

I saw one... one! bee this year. No wasp, nothing. Frightening.
Not that I´m a fan at all, but they belong, right.

Natalia said...

Very interesting, I'm afraid of insects, though! Love these pictures, have a lovely day!

eileeninmd said...

Great info and post.
If the wasp do not bother me, I will not bother them.

Take care, enjoy your day! Have a happy new week ahead!

Jeanie said...

I can't say wasps are my favorite but the article is intriguing. Thanks, Jan.

This N That said...

Very informative...I'm OK with wasps if they leave me alone..Happy weekend..

carol l mckenna said...

Great article info ~ will never look at a wasp in the same way again ~ ^_^

Live each moment with love,

A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)

https://linsartyblobs.blogspot.com said...

Interesting. Enjoy our week.

Sue said...

What a very interesting article. We all love bees yet hate wasps, don't we. We have a few fruit trees so get drunk bees at the end of Summer when the fruit ferments - not fun! xx

The Joy of Home with Martha Ellen said...

Everything has its job in this world. Love the article.

My name is Erika. said...

This is fascinating. And yes, there have been plenty of wasps lately, especially at my hummingbird feeder. Happy new week.

baili said...

i enjoyed knowing about little thing dear Jan

unlike you here in southern part of Pakistan winters are outdoor season instead of summers ,and our companion during picnics are mostly ants of some kind though our time between both seasons is suitable for flying insects
thank you for sharing
more blessings to your world :)

Lorrie said...

A very interesting article, Jan. We usually have one or two pesky wasps about when we eat outdoors.

Conniecrafter said...

We had a picnic on Saturday out on our deck and can you believe that we were bombarded with flies, as I was reading I thought this could be our picnic if it was talking about flies, so funny as we didn't notice a one until we sat down to eat and all of a sudden they were swarming us. This was an interesting read, never thought of it in these terms!

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent article. Wasps are fascinating creatures.

One year i was on an archeology dig in Poland, it was a very hot summer and the wasps gathered in the campsite, attracted to the jam and other sweet things we ate. In the evenings we were sometimes literally surrounded by wasps, they'd even be crawling over our food. This perhaps sounds terrifying, but, in the whole two weeks of wasps, only one person got stung.

Carla from The River said...

Great article and I am happy you shared this on your blog. I learned about the benefits of wasps when I took my Master Gardener class. They truly are one of mother natures pest control team-members. :-)

Debbie said...

this was a great read on wasps!! friends and definitely necessary!!

Snowbird said...

I'm always sorry for the wasps at this time of the year, the poor things are aimless and waiting to die. What a wonderful post.xxx

Teresa said...

Hay bastantes avispas por aquí, no me gusta molestarlas. Besos.

Christine said...

The recipes look very good. I will copy them and try them. Trying to get my Type 2 Diabetes levels lowered.

Thank you
Christine