One of the memories I have when I was much younger occurred with a shocking encounter with a wasp nest.

A friend and I spotted the multicolored nest under the roof of a neighbor’s garage and decided to devilishly throw rocks at it. One of the projectiles damaged the covering and allowed all of the angry and disturbed inhabitants to escape. My friend closest to the nest was not wearing a shirt and was bitten viscously multiple times all over his chest and back.  I can recall him using the water from a garden hose to ease the excruciating pain, redness and numerous welts.  

This act of aggressiveness may be one of the reasons wasps are one of the least loved and most puzzling of all insects.

There are other examples as well. Why is there an inordinate amount of wasp species, and why are they so diverse in form and function? How are they able to manipulate other insects so effectively? Why have wasps evolved societies so complex that they make ours look like childhood role play? Why are we not better harnessing the services of wasps as vital predators of pests?  

According to Seirian Sumner in her book “Endless Forms,” “In stark contrast to bees, wasps are depicted as the gangsters of the insect world, winged thugs, inspiration for horror movies, the ‘sting’ in the tale of thriller novels, conduits of biblical punishment.

“Shakespeare, Pope Francis, Aristotle, even Darwin struggled to speak favorably of wasps, and questioned the purpose of their existence. Scientists have been victims of this culture too, shunning wasps as research subjects despite the endless forms of these creatures that remain to be studied. It seems the root of this hatred is the wasp’s sting, its eagerness to keep on stinging, and its apparent pointlessness in the natural world.”

Description

Wasps make up an enormously diverse array of insects, with some 30,000 identified species. We are most familiar with those that are wrapped in bright warning colors — ones that buzz angrily about in groups and threaten us with painful stings. Wasps are divided into two primary subgroups: social and solitary. Social wasps account for only about a thousand species and include formidable colony-builders, like yellow jackets and hornets. But most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging varieties. And all do far more good for humans by controlling pest insect populations than harm.

Bees And Wasps

Unlike bees, which we adore for their honey and waggle dances, wasps have suffered from a poor public image for millennia. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle dismissed wasps as “devoid of the extraordinary features that characterise bees,” adding conclusively, “they have nothing divine about them.” Since then you’d struggle to find a sympathetic cultural portrayal of wasps. Swarms of wasps smite unbelievers in the Bible. Shakespeare warns of waspish behavior. We disparage the snobbishness of WASPs.

 Parasitoid Wasps

Many types of wasps are parasitoids, insects that live inside the body of their hosts and eventually kill as they emerge. This life cycle is unique to insects. Adult female wasps find their hosts by following the smell of chemicals released by plant leaves that are being consumed by caterpillars. The wasp lays about 65 eggs inside the caterpillar’s body.  The larvae will live and grow inside the body, feeding on its hemolymph (a fluid similar to blood in insects) for about two weeks before chewing their way through its exoskeleton.

Value

The importance of wasps as predators has gone largely unappreciated. Wasps are important in ecological and economic terms; they have as many “sunny sides” as bees do, with their fascinating social behaviors, their beauty and diversity and their evolutionary importance as the ancestral root to all bees and ants.

Wasps hold hidden treasures of relevance to our own culture, survival, health and happiness. Sumner’s  book aims to balance the scales, to pull up a chair for wasps at the nature table of appreciation, and to transform the macabre repulsion that people have for wasps into the fascination and appreciation that wasps deserve. If you love bees, this book may bring uncomfortable news: bees are simply wasps that have forgotten how to hunt. The “original bee” was a solitary wasp who turned vegetarian, replacing the protein of meat with the protein of plants – pollen – and so kick-starting  starting the bees’ long co-evolutionary relationship with plants.

This evolutionary shift in diet was not the birth of “usefulness,” though: the ancestor of the “original bee” had proved equally important in the environment as a master regulator of other insect and arthropod populations. Wasps are also ancestors of ants: the first ant was a wasp that lost its wings. Today’s solitary hunting wasps provide us with glimpses of what the original bee and original ant would have been like.

Final Thoughts

Seirian Sumner’s book is enlightening and fun to read.  I highly recommend it.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.