Posted: Wednesday 23 October 2013
by Richard Jones

The easiest way to tell male and female wasps apart is to look at the antennae.

It’s that time again, when I try to convince small children to pick up live wasps. I make no bones about it: I'm trying to indoctrinate them with something other than fear and loathing for what I think are beautiful and charismatic insects. If wasps didn’t have stings, my guess is that they’d top even hoverflies in the handsome, helpful and welcome-in-the-garden stakes.
I'm not being reckless though. I only ever get children to hold wasps that don’t have stings, really. And it is at this time of year when stingless wasps abound. A wasp’s sting is a modified part of the egg-laying tube, so obviously it's only possessed by wasps that have an egg-laying apparatus i.e., females. Males, by definition, do not lay eggs, have no organs to do so, so have no sting. It’s simple.
This is where I could make the facetious statement that to tell male from female wasps all you need do is pick one up. If it stings you, it’s a female.
Instead, I can offer some other pointers. The easiest way to tell male and female wasps apart is to look at the antennae. Females have 12 short segments, giving them the standard relatively short and stout antennae. Males have 13 slightly longer segments, giving them longer, thinner and more curved-looking antennae. The difference is very subtle, though.
I’ve had a quick scour of the interweb for comparative pictures, but it’s surprisingly tricky to find good images. If you go to the BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society) common wasp page and click on the diagram of specimens rather than the photographs, you can get some idea. There is a similar page for the equally common German wasp. I also found common wasp images on the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification site, where pinned museum specimens show the differences quite nicely.
Male wasps also tend to be slightly longer and more cylindrical in the body than workers (the sterile females that forage and build); males have an extra body segment, but there can be easy confusion with the large queens, which are also about now at the end of the year.
You do have to get your eye in. I’m quite confident now, and have mastered a 100% no-sting rate with all of the children I’ve cajoled into wasp-wrangling. I'm hopeful that some of the next generation, at least, will grow up feeling slightly less antagonistic towards these lovely animals.

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Talkback: Wasps
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Phil Graham 24/10/2013 at 19:24

Richard 'Bugman' Jones on the art of "how to get yourself and your family stung by wasps".

Kate Bradbury 24/10/2013 at 20:05

I like to dip my fingers in beer and let the wasps come to me to drink from my hand. Gorgeous little things. Go Bugman!

GillyL 24/10/2013 at 20:12

I like mine to drink from a jar with a  little jam, half full of water and a lid with holes big enough for them to get in but not out.......and drown.

They ruin outdoor eating and their sting is really painful  ....

Posy 25/10/2013 at 07:14

Don't try this at home. Every year, I remember that I don't really mind badgers in the garden when they dig out any wasps' nests and eat all the contents.

duffron 25/10/2013 at 08:33

They may be beautiful and are certainly useful, but to some of us they are deadly. I had anaphylactic shock the last time a wasp stung me. Ronnie

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