Friday, March 1, 2024

How We Can Stop Hating Wasps

Recent studies have shown that wasps are among the most loathed of all insects. Consequently, much time and money is wasted on trying to eradicate them, especially by homeowners. Let’s consider why we have the attitudes we do, and how we can achieve coexistence with wasps.

A trio of Western Yellowjakcet workers dispatches a pest caterpillar.

Why do we hate wasps?

There are three main reasons wasps evoke fear and loathing.

  • The sting. Females of some species can inflict painful stings on us tender humans. This is occasionally for self-defense, but mostly in defense of a nest full of immobile and otherwise vulnerable eggs, larvae, and pupae inside a nest. Only social wasps will bother us this way.
  • Narrow definition of “wasp.” Most people equate the word “wasp” with “hornet,” “yellowjacket,” or “paper wasp.” All of these are social wasps, the ones most abundant in urban and suburban settings, and by far the ones we have the most negative encounters with. Some people recognize other kinds of wasps, particularly mud daubers, but consider their nests unsightly, a nuisance, or a potential threat. In reality, the overwhelming majority of wasps are solitary, like mud daubers, each female making her own nest, or using a host animal or plant in situ. Most wasps cannot sting people. Many cannot sting at all. Most are tiny, only ten millimeters or less in length.
  • Social wasps exploit our habits and weaknesses. Yellowjackets (including the Bald-faced “Hornet,” and paper wasps make their nests in and around our homes and buildings. This is because our architecture mimics the cliff faces, rock overhangs, and natural hollows where they nest “in the wild.” A few yellowjacket species are scavengers, and your barbecue or picnic resembles an abandoned animal carcass that can be exploited. The wasps take protein matter back to the nest to feed their growing larval siblings. Meanwhile, your open soda or beer container offers sugary carbohydrates the adult wasps need to fuel their flight muscles. We like to think we are masters of our domain, or at least our private property, and wasps defy that desire with maddening efficiency.

Most wasps, like this "fairyfly," are tiny, solitary, and don't sting people.

Benefits of Tolerating Wasps

Positive outcomes from tolerating wasps, or even accommodating them, far outweigh any perceived benefits of eradication or control, excepting rare cases where you or another family member has hypersensitivity to insect venom, and there is demonstrable risk of a life-threatening incident.

  • Saving money on products or services. This point is seldom made when arguing against the use of DIY pest control products, or the employment of professional pest control services, but it can be of profound financial consideration. Prevention is easier and more effective. More on that in a moment.
  • Wasps are a pest control service. Most social wasps, even those that scavenge occasionally, are predatory on insects that are problematic in our yards, gardens, barns, and sheds. Solitary wasps are parasitoids of even more species that can be truly pestiferous. Among the hosts for wasps are caterpillars that eat garden plants, aphids that suck plant sap, flies that can potentially spread bacteria, cockroaches both outdoors and indoors, and spiders. There is scarcely any terrestrial arthropod that is not host to at least one wasp species.
  • Wasps are pollinators. Technically, most wasps are “flower visitors,” coming to blossoms for nectar to fuel their flight muscles. They still effect pollination services, and there are some species in western North America that are obligate pollinators of certain wildflowers.
  • Wasps dispose of animal carcasses. Those scavenging yellowjackets make quick work of the remains of small animal carcasses that vultures and other vertebrate scavengers ignore or cannot find. This prevents the accumulation of decaying animal matter, lessens risks to human health from problematic bacteria, and prevents explosions of filth flies that would otherwise use those dead animal resources.
  • Wasps are a source of fascination and intrigue. Wasps can be easily and safely observed as they go about their activities of host-seeking, flower-visiting, and nest-making. You will be surprised by how many wasp species are living in obscurity in your yard and garden. Watching them will reveal amazing relationships with many other organisms.

Paper wasp nests can be safely observed and offer hours of fascination.

How do we get along?

We can prevent most negative encounters with wasps by taking a few precautions. It will literally save you physical pain and financial discomfort.

  • Learn wasp body language. Paper wasps, the ones that make uncovered paper combs under eaves, in door and window frames, and elsewhere, are usually amicable neighbors. If you do approach a nest too closely, one or more wasps will stand on tiptoe and flare their wings. This means “back off.” You risk being stung if you ignore that warning.
  • Inspect your yard regularly. Too often, underground yellowjacket nests, or those above ground, hidden in shrubs or rock walls, are not discovered until the lawnmower runs over one, or the hedge trimmer triggers an attack. Inspect your property thoroughly, including playground equipment, before using tools, or otherwise causing any strong vibration in the vicinity of a social wasp nest. It may take a little patience and keen observation to note the streams of wasps coming and going regularly from a specific location. Your kids may see them before you do.
  • Serve beverages outdoors in clear glass or plastic.
  • Unattended beverages that are sweet or fermented will attract yellowjackets and other wasps that may crawl inside the container. Cans and opaque bottles mean that you will not notice a wasp inside. A sting to the tongue or throat can be a life-threatening experience regardless of whether you are allergic to stings.
  • Cover food served outdoors. When not serving yourself or others, cover meats and sweets at the outdoor gathering. You can also set out a small, exposed plate of meat a good distance away from the serving table, to draw yellowjackets away.
  • Seal cracks and crevices. To prevent wasps from nesting indoors, or seeking shelter in the winter, seal cracks and crevices. Mend holes in, or replace, window screens. Screen the attic vent with fine mesh. Replace worn weatherstripping around doors. This will help save on heating and cooling costs, too.
  • Learn to recognize solitary wasps. Many wasps that are solitary may behave as if they are social. A large number of wasps flying low over your lawn are likely male wasps looking for females that have yet to emerge from the ground. An ominous gathering of iridescent blue mud daubers in a door frame at dusk means that males are bedding down for the night in a large group. Male wasps do not sting. Cicada killers are huge wasps, but solitary. Females may nest close together, making them appear social. Males keep watch over them and may fly “aggressively” to chase away any and all intruders. It is all bluff.

More information about wasps can be found in this blog, in my book Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, and elsewhere. Online, the most reliable sources remain college, university, and museum websites with a “.edu” or “.org” suffix in the URL. Thank you in advance for sharing a link to this post in social media, neighborhood groups, and other outlets.

A solitary thread-waisted wasp with a caterpillar she stung into paralysis. It will be food for her single larval offspring at the bottom of an underground burrow.

Sources: Schmack, Juila M., Monika Egerer, Susan Karlebowski, Astrid E. Neumann, and Ulrike Sturm. 2024. “Overlooked and misunderstood: how urban community gardeners perceive social wasps and their ecosystem functions,” Journal of Insect Conservation.

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