The Sting!

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Vespula vulgaris (the common wasp to its friends)

What is the quintessential sound of a traditional English summer? The tinkling nuisance of ‘Greensleeves’ as an ice-cream van turns up in a suburban street?  The incessant drumming of rain on a holiday caravan roof? Or the insistent buzz of a wasp heading for your picnic or table in the pub garden?

Not that there’s anything exclusively English about the menace of the wasp. Apparently there are around 8000 species of wasp, some of them microscopic in size, others as big as a cat. (OK probably not quite as big as that!) But they’ve long been a problem to the humans whose world they share.

The first mention they get comes from ancient Egypt in 2621BC when King Menes was reportedly killed by a Kheb, which can be translated as ‘wasp’ or ‘hornet’. This could of course also be the first reported account of death from anaphylactic shock caused by wasp venom.

The idea of a wasp as a suspect in a murder case appears in an Agatha Christie mystery where a wasp is brought on a plane in a matchbox and let free to cause confusion about how a murder was committed. Poirot of course uses his leedle grey cells and works out what actually happened. (Death in the Clouds if you’re interested). Clearly a wasp would be an ideal accomplice to a murder given their inherently evil nature. If you get on the wrong side of a wasp you’ll get a nasty reminder that his bite is even worse than his buzz.

And if you know anything about wasps you’ll know that the last sentence was nonsense because male wasps don’t sting. The female of the species is much deadlier. And in any case her male counterpart doesn’t have the equipment. He is devoid of a stinger. His only real aim in his short life is to find a lady wasp he can mate with and die with a smile on his face.

Why do wasps attack humans? If they think the nest is under threat then they’ll retaliate with their only defense mechanism. Unlike the bee which dies as soon as it uses its sting, the wasp can stab the potential threat again and again. And they can also call for help. When a threat is detected, wasps release a pheromone that summons the rest of the soldier wasps. You don’t really want that to happen.

Try to avoid too moving around too much as wasps are equipped with compound eyes very sensitive to movement. The more you wave your arms and move your body, the bigger the threat you become.

They can be a bloody nuisance especially if you’re trying to enjoy a drink and a sandwich in a pub but don’t get too agitated and the wasp will usually leave you alone. And if one does land on you, just let it be. If you’re calm it’ll sit quietly washing its whiskers, and eventually fly off in search of food. OK, don’t think I could do that either. Just wave it away and run like hell. Its apparently a well-known fact that human beings can outrun wasps. Let me know how you get on.

One ‘fun fact’ about wasps which is really not much fun at all is that wasps can (and sometimes do) eat their merry way through walls or ceilings made of plasterboard if their nest is resting against them. The sound they make as they chew away – excavating the wall – might well keep you awake. The trouble is you don’t really hear much until just before they get through and flood into the room. One warning sign you can watch for is a very faint brown stain, which lets you know that you’re separated from a horror movie experience by much not more than a layer of paint.

So what use are they? They are actually very important in keeping the ecosystem balanced. Without wasps, the world could be overrun with spiders and insects. Each summer, wasps in the UK capture an estimated 14 million kilogrammes of insect prey, such as caterpillars and greenfly. Perhaps we should be calling them the gardener’s friend.

In fact we’ve all got these yellow and black striped creatures wrong, and we should be cherishing them for the ecological marvels that they are. A world without wasps would be a world with a very much larger number of insect pests chomping on our crops and chewing on our gardens. So let’s hear it for wasps, the key workers of the insect world.

But as your cheers die away, listen very carefully for the sounds of wasps chewing through your ceiling….

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