What’s the point of wasps? Turns out, they do a lot more than you think

“The point of wasps goes well beyond their sting”, explains Dr. Seirian Sumner as she tries to convince a sceptical crowd at New Scientist Live that the pesky flying insects are more than just a nuisance at your barbecue.

It’s almost a losing battle – everyone thinks wasps are absolute bastards. They’re moody, persistent and they’ll sting you without hesitation. At least, that’s what everyone thinks, but it turns out we shouldn’t be so waspist.

Aside from accidentally killing them all in the process, it’s dangerous to tar all wasps with the same brush. The wasp that draws all our ire is the Yellow Jacket, and that single wasp is so completely different from other types of wasp like the European or Great Asian Hornet. To say all wasps are bad because you’ve been bothered by rather pesky Yellow Jacket is on par with refusing to eat mushrooms because someone once threw one at you.whats_the_point_of_wasps_turns_out_they_do_a_lot_more_than_you_think_-_2

I can understand your distaste for wasps. They seem to offer absolutely nothing to human society. Wasps seem like scroungers in insect form. But according to Dr. Sumner, there’s far more to wasps than you first think.

Wasps are more diverse than any other insect

So, we’ve already established that Yellow Jackets aren’t the only type of wasp out there. These wasps, which are seen as “the gangsters and thugs of the insect world” are just one of over 150,000 different species of wasp. There are more wasps than bees and ants combined and they have some of the greatest variations in species too.

For example, the Giant Asian Hornet is 5cm in length, with a wingspan of 7cm and a top flight speed of 25mph – the Fairy Wasp, on the other hand, is less than 1mm in length. Then you can look at the incorrectly named Velvet Ant, the female of which is a flightless wasp with a mean sting, or the “king of wasps”, the Megalara, whose appearance has more in common with a beetle than the common garden-variety wasp we’re so familiar with.

Wasps have complex social structures

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Social bees, such as the Yellow Jacket Wasp, Hover Wasp and Paper Wasp, have a life that could fit into the form of a soap opera – as Dr. Sumner explains.

“You have a queen that lays the eggs and workers who raise the larvae – it’s just like the honey bee.

“In a normal colony, such as of the European Hornet, everything is under law and order, and the queen has no trouble from her workers. However, when the queen dies all hell breaks loose – workers start laying eggs, nobody is looking after the colony structure and it becomes absolute armageddon.”

This breakdown comes about as a power-play for the new queen begins, a situation Dr. Sumner refers to as a “Game of Thrones situation”. But when everything is actually running as usual, it’s a well-oiled machine where each wasp plays an important role in the greater good. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations may have laid down the rules of modern capitalist industrialisation, but wasps were following his rules 250 million years before he penned them.

Wasps are the best form of pesticide

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If you’re totally against chemical pesticides, you need to be pro-wasp. Wasps are nature’s best pesticide as they’re carnivores who don’t care what they eat as long as it’s protein. This means they’ll gobble up aphids and caterpillars – along with bits of your picnic sandwiches if given the chance.

“Where farmers have removed wasp colonies en-masse, they’ve found a huge increase on the pests in their farms and in their gardens,” Dr. Sumner explained. “Wasps are actually doing us a service by removing the pests we’d be throwing chemicals at to get rid of them.”

Also, because wasps eat spiders, flies and a whole variety of creepy crawlies people tend to hate, they’re also not killing off a single species. They don’t specifically hunt down just one type of caterpillar, or one type of fly, they’ll eat literally anything, so their presence is of no harm to any ecosystem.

“Next time you go to swat that wasp away, think about it – would you rather have spiders, or would you rather have wasps?”

There are around 30,000 different species of wasp that deal with pests and, going from a study in Australia, wasps can eat an average of 23kg of prey per colony, per season. When you’re talking about aphids and ants, 23kg is A LOT of pests.

Wasps are, arguably, better pollinators than bees

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You may think this sounds rather ridiculous, especially when there’s much hand-wringing about the death of bees, but wasps are actually very good pollinators. Wasps may grab all the food they can, but the adults who actually go out and hunt it down aren’t eating any of it – they’re taking it back to the hive to feed their young. Instead, adult wasps consume carbohydrates and visit plants to chow down on some pollen. In the process, they pollinate different plants.

This doesn’t mean we can stop worrying about the decline of bees – the same decline seems to be occurring in wasps too. Bees are specialist, they thrive in nice habitats, while wasps tend to not hang out in those environments as much. Wasps fill the gaps that bees don’t because there’s plenty of prey hanging out in the broken and degraded habitats bees shy away from.

Because of this, wasps are known to be responsible for pollinating around 650 different species of plants over 105 different families of plant. They don’t fight bees for territory, they generally ignore them and happily visit the plants that bees overlook, allowing them to “back up” bee’s pollination efforts.

The point of wasps?

So, what really is the point of wasps? It may well have been rumoured that they led to the creation of paper, but these insect industrialists offer so much more to the world than simply being a picnic pest.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Sumner explains, we still just don’t know enough about wasps to be really able to quantify their contribution to our society. Even scientists aren’t spending enough time on researching wasps, looking to ants and bees as leaders of colony-based structures. We also have no idea what species live in which parts of the UK – nobody’s invested enough time in trying to find out.

Thankfully, from late August until early September, The Great Wasp Survey took place to help understand the wasp makeup of the UK. it’ll be a little while until we see the results of that, but for now, just think twice before swatting that wasp away.

New Scientist Live is on until 1 October where you can hear more about the bleeding-edges of scientific research – or just go eat some bugs. You can buy tickets to the show here.

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