by Richard Jones

I'm rather hoping that 2011 will be a good year for wasps. Unfortunately, my definition of a good year is sometimes at odds with other people's.

Queen waspI’m rather hoping that 2011 will be a good year for wasps. Unfortunately, my definition of a good year is sometimes at odds with other people’s. For me, a good year is seeing wasps by the bucket load.

There is more to this than a perverse I-like-bugs-any-bugs-at-all sort of detached scientific curiosity. There is a bit of that. But mostly, it is because if we have a good year for wasps, we also have a good year for so many other insects. It’s all tied in to their seasonal emergence behaviour.

Unlike bees, which can start flying from late January, it is only around the beginning of May that wasps start to appear. Bumblebees, especially, are early risers — early in the day and early in the year. Their furry coats help keep them warm, when it is too sharp for many other insects. This is also why bees are so successful further up mountains and nearer to the Arctic. And although they really do not like the heavy wet of drenching rain, a cool misty morning is hardly any inconvenience for them.

Wasps, though, are sun-worshipers, and the last few warm weeks have seemed perfect for them. As in bumblebees, it is only the mated queen wasps that survive the winter. When they emerge, they must each found a new nest from scratch. For several weeks, the queen must chew wood pulp to make the small golfball-sized embryo nest with its 15-20 cells in a single paper comb. After she has laid her first 15-20 eggs in these, she must forage for caterpillars, flies, aphids and other insects to feed to the grubs that hatch.

This is a vulnerable time for her. If the weather suddenly turns, she cannot fly to hunt food. The damp can always threaten mould for nest and brood, or heavy rain can give rise to flooding. She and the colony will only be safe when the first batch of worker females are reared through to adulthood in late May or June. Then she will have help to protect, feed and increase the nest.

All too often, a promising start to spring is suddenly reversed by a bout of poor weather in May. This can cause fatal setbacks to the queen wasp and her immature colony. Similar starts and flounderings are happening throughout the insect world, in similar warmth-loving creatures, from bugs to butterflies, with the hatching of vulnerable eggs into vulnerable larvae at exactly this time. A good year for wasps is usually a good year for other insects too.

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Talkback: Wasps
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Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2011 at 08:24

I am not particularly a wasp fan..but they don't bother me particularly ( unlike my husband who is a sight to behold when a wasp comes within 50ft of him )...can you tell me what is their actual purpose in life?? as I truly do not know !! cheers !!

Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2011 at 09:10

please can you tell me how i can stop them from consuming my wooden balcony thanks :-)

Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2011 at 09:11

They help to control aphids, they are carnivorous so good for gardeners.

Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2011 at 09:48

In answer to Margo's query, wasps are part of the great, big, biodiverse picture. Their "purpose in life" is the same as ours: to live, eat, reproduce and die :) Oh, and along the way, they do consume a number of creatures that are harmful to humans' crops!

Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2011 at 09:59

margo, without wasps we would be plagued by flies and spiders which they feed to their young. Your husband should learn to stay calm(good for his blood pressure) as they only sting when feeling threatened. In the autumn, put out a jamjar with some jam in it and the workers and males will feed on this and leave him alone.

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