A difficult year for wasps

Posted: Friday 28 September 2012
by Kate Bradbury

This week has marked a change in insect behaviour in my garden – some insects have started looking for a dry place to hibernate.

Queen wasp on Kate Bradbury's hand

This week has marked a change in insect behaviour in my garden. As well as the bees and hoverflies browsing flowers for a last drop of nectar, some insects have started to take an interest in my solitary bee hotels, presumably looking for a dry place to hibernate.

I’ve seen a few queen wasps among the prospecting hibernators. I’ve found them in my solitary bee boxes before, all sleepy with their wings tucked under their bodies. They obviously like the nooks and crannies the boxes provide, as do the woodlice and spiders I’ve also found taking shelter.

I like wasps. I love their little face and thick, black antennae. I’ve only been stung by one once, and that was more than 20 years ago, when I fell out of a tree and landed on a rotting damson. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. The school dinner ladies dressed the sting with a vinegar-soaked bandage and I received a modicum of sympathy from my mum, but it didn’t hurt that much. 

Wasps can be annoying during summer picnics, but it’s only in late summer when they start to annoy. And, while I could do without them flying in my face, I feel a bit sorry for them. Having spent all year picking aphids and caterpillars off our plants to feed their siblings, they’re suddenly redundant when the queen stops laying. No longer receiving a sugary reward from the grubs for their efforts, they’re left to fend for themselves. And then they get drunk on fermenting fruit. How demoralising.

I’m glad some wasps have made it through the summer, as I’ve barely seen any this year. I had such high hopes for them in spring, when queens were out in force, rasping wood to start their amazing paper nests. But then the rains came and they disappeared.

Wasps need good weather in spring when they’re starting a nest. They emerge in April and May, when temperatures are starting to increase, but a change in conditions can wreak havoc. Queens can’t fly in wet, cold conditions, so the first batch of workers can starve. The nest can also be flooded or simply rot.

I found a queen in my mother-in-law’s conservatory in April, and coaxed her on to my hand to drink sugar water, before setting her free. I wonder what became of her, whether her daughter queens are now browsing solitary bee hotels for somewhere to hibernate, or if she was one of the thousands to fall at the first hurdle. I guess I’ll never know.

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oldchippy 29/09/2012 at 18:32

Hi Kate I haven't seen many wasps this year,I saw a flock of Swallows Wednesday lunch time in the park,We have pollen from a conifer tree all over the cars and garden furniture is this unusual for this time of the year or is some thing going on .


donutsmrs 30/09/2012 at 18:23

Hi Kate, I haven't seen many wasps either this year. I did have one fly into the house and I caught it in a jar and let it go. They really do have a hard life, the poor things.

Kate Bradbury 30/09/2012 at 20:18

@oldchippy lovely that you saw swallows! I saw some house martins today, perhaps on their way back to Africa. I'm not sure about your conifer pollen, I think some pine trees do shed pollen in autumn...

@donutmrs hopefully next year will be better for them