Learning to love wasps

Since the arrival on our shores of the dreaded Asian hornet, most beekeepers have been more vigilant around their apiaries but some are using traps which indiscriminately kill all wasps including our beneficial native hornet, Vespa Crabro.

Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp

Wasps generally get a bad press. Nobody (including beekeepers) enjoys them hovering over our barbecues and picnics. Most people see them at best, as a nuisance and at worse, as nasty, aggressive creatures intent on stinging everything in range.

However, to put this into perspective, wasps are really only a nuisance towards the end of summer and they’re certainly not aggressive. Hopefully this page will give you a new understanding of wasps; you never know, you may even grow to love them!

In the UK, we have seven species of social wasps, one of which is a cuckoo which means it’s actually a social parasite.

Then there’s the European hornet (Vespa Crabro) which is really just a big wasp. It has a yellow head with a reddish brown thorax (the middle bit) and it’s abdomen has yellow and black stripes similar to its smaller cousin, the common wasp. It also has reddish-brown legs. Know your hornets

Although she may look a bit scary at 3.3cm long, our native hornet is the gardeners’ friend. She pollinates our plants and preys on pests like black fly and aphids. The European hornet is much less likely to sting you than the common wasp.

To fully understand these fascinating and clever insects, which are so closely related to our bees, we must first understand their life cycle.

• A wasp nest starts each season with a single queen who has hibernated over winter. Sometimes, beekeepers find them under hive roofs or a wasp queen will find a cosy place in or around our homes. Natural History Museum, why do wasps build nests?

• These queens are intent on finding a nesting place, they’re certainly not interested in us or our bees.

• Once they’ve found a suitable place, the queen builds a small nest and starts laying eggs which will develop into workers. It must be very hard work, the queen takes care of this brood entirely on her own.

• Once the workers start hatching, the queen restricts herself to laying eggs and the workers do everything else.

• During the spring and summer, as the wasp nest builds, the workers go out and capture live prey (black fly, aphids and caterpillars). They chew it into a sort of gruel to feed to the larvae, which, unlike our honey bees, are carnivorous.

• At this stage, the nest comprises one queen and many female workers. The workers also visit flowers for nectar, pollinating as they go.

• Some plants, like the Common Figwort are pollinated exclusively by wasps and you’ll often see them on Ivy late in the season.

Common Figwort

• The wasp larvae, in exchange for their meaty gruel, exude a drop of sweet saliva which gives the workers their sugar fix!

• Later in the season, the nest will also produce males and fully-functioning females (queens) which will leave the nest to mate.

• After this, from August onwards, the queen stops laying. With no more larvae to feed, there’s no more sugar fixes for the workers and that’s when they start investigating our sweet treats and fizzy drinks. As beekeepers know only too well, wasps can be bothersome to our bees too, attracted by their sweet smelling honey. This is really only a problem for weaker colonies which can be wiped out by wasps. Autumn in the apiary , this page contains a video showing robbing.

• The young queens now mated, go into hibernation ready for next year. The rest of the nest dies. Wasps will not use that nest again.

Wasps construct beautiful nests from wood. They scrape wood from trees using their mandibles, then mix it with saliva to form a type of paper mache. The cells are perfect hexagons which hang upside down inside an envelope which sometimes has to be re-made as the nest expands.

Keep calm and carry on

Wasps are very inquisitive, they test everything in their environment to see if it’s food. Wasp’s dislike sudden movements which is why waving your arms around trying to bat them away is a bad idea. Trying to make a hasty exit (possibly screaming) is also more likely to provoke a stinging reaction. Stay still and let the wasp investigate you; they’ll very quickly decide you’re not a suitable food source for their larvae and leave you alone.

Wasps are attracted to over-ripe or rotten fruit

It’s also important not to vibrate a wasp nest as they will interpret that as an attack. Be careful when using garden machinery near a wasps nest.

Although wasps help with pollination, their main benefit to us is pest control. They are prolific eaters of aphids and many other garden pests. Watch them working on your cabbages and other vegetables. Learn a bit about them and appreciate what these wonderful creatures actually do.

As beekeepers, we can protect our hives against the Asian hornet by using live traps and inspecting regularly. With these, we can release our native species so they can carry on their good work. There’s a YouTube video and some notes explaining how to make a live trap here or you can buy traps from your usual beekeeping supplier.

This page is based on an article by Celia Davis which first appeared in BBKA News in August 2017

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