They’re the bane of every picnicker’s life – a buzzing menace with the threat of a nasty sting but experts say we should learn to love wasps for the vital part they play in our eco-system.
There are thousands of species of wasps in the UK, although only a handful are social wasps - the ones we’re most likely to have contact with.
Professor Seirian Sumner from University College London has studied wasps for 25 years – and is the author of Endless Forms, a book which sings the praises of the creatures.
She took me to get a closer look at a wasp nest that had been found in a garden shed.
It was early in the summer so the nest was of a modest size – probably containing between 1,000 and 2,000 wasps. If left undisturbed though, such a nest could become home to up to 10,000 wasps.
We wore protective suits, wellington boots and rubber gloves – to try to prevent us being stung. The professor also advised me to minimise my breathing and movement near the nest – it was to avoid the wasps mistaking me for one of their biggest predators – the badger.
I asked the professor to convince me that wasps are useful.
She said: “Wasps are nature’s pest controllers. They hunt other insects like the caterpillars that eat your cabbages or the aphids on your tomato plants.
"So a world without wasps would mean we’d have to use other ways to control these insects – which would often be pesticides – so wasps are kind of our route towards a much more environmentally friendly way of controlling insect pests.”
Most people encounter wasps in the late summer when the creatures are effectively at a bit of a loose end. The wasp larvae have turned into pupae and no longer need feeding by the adults.
Wasps are also missing out on the sugary reward they get when they feed the larvae – which is why your drink or ice cream at the picnic becomes so attractive to them. It’s a situation made worse by the common human reaction of arm waving and shouting – the wasps think they’re under attack from predators.
The professor managed to slide the wasp nest off the wall into a container with the aim of rehoming it so that the creatures and their behaviour can be studied more closely.
Why wasps are useful:
Pest control – they are predators that feed on a variety of insects including caterpillars and aphids
Pollination – wasps are important pollinators and unlike bees, they don’t mind which flowers they visit
Decomposition – wasps feed on decaying organic matter and help break down material, recycling nutrients into the ecosystem
Ecological balance – wasps serve as a food source for various predators including birds, spiders and badgers