Wasps, specifically Yellow Jackets, have an ability shared by few animals their size. They can clear a room in seconds! One hint of a wasp and the burliest of builders scarper from their pints in an attempt to avoid this tiny, apparently ferocious being.
But the truth is, they aren’t that interested in us. In fact, unless we are actively threatening them, they barely notice us.
My experience with wasps
In 2010 I moved to an animal sanctuary to volunteer full time. I was there for two and a half years and it was one of the most wonderful and fascinating experiences of my life. It is a farmed animal rescue and they have open days in the summer, I recommend checking them out. Click here to see F.R.I.E.N.D Animal Rescue’s website.
A local supermarket donated all their leftover produce, bread and confectionary to the sanctuary and we would collect it every day in crates, and store it in a large, metal container with only a few small windows and a narrow door. The pigs roamed fairly freely so the container needed to be strong to keep them out!
Wasps are fond of things like cake and sweet fruits like cherries, especially in the autumn, so the container was often full of wasps. One of the jobs on the sanctuary was to remove the food from the packaging, which often meant literally putting your hands into a big pile of feasting wasps. As long as you did this slowly and methodically, being careful not to grab a wasp, and gently remove the packaging, they are far too busy eating to notice you. In all the time I lived there, and the many years I volunteered there, I was only stung once. And that was because a wasp had landed on my side. I didn’t notice him and briefly, smothered him with my arm. He gave me a warning sting, I immediately lifted my arm and he flew away!
I wouldn’t willingly repeat the experience, but thankfully I, (like most people), am not allergic to wasp stings and it was no worse than a mosquito bite.
Why do wasps want sweet food in Autumn?
It is a misconception that wasps are carnivores. They need very little protein and actually only eat sugars, like those found in the cherries and cakes I mentioned above. Back at their nest, the wasp larvae produce the nectar that the wasps eat, which fuels them.
The queen constantly lays and fertilises eggs throughout the spring and summer. As the larvae become pupae and then wasps, there is always a fresh batch of larvae to provide the nectar that ensures the colony survives.
The queen starts preparing to end her lifecycle in the autumn. As part of this process, she lays eggs which will develop into new queens and fertile males, as well as the last batch of workers.
After this, she stops producing eggs, which means the cycle of larvae to feed the adults stops and the last generation have to seek out their own sugary food. These poor wasps are really hungry, have no commitment to the nest as there are no larvae to feed and are desperately seeking sugary foods. This is why there is a higher chance of getting stung in the autumn than the rest of the year. But as I say, not once was I stung when meddling with feeding wasps, maybe they could sense my intent? Or maybe they have a reputation they really don’t deserve.
Why do wasps kill other insects?
While the adult wasps themselves are not carnivorous, their larvae are. So wasps hunt insects like caterpillars, flies, crickets and aphids, take them back to the nest, tear them up and feed them to the larvae.
The larvae in turn then make the sugary nectar that sustains the adults and gives them enough energy to continue hunting food for the larvae. A very efficient cycle.
How do wasps help keep humans fed?
Wasps are predators. They are at the top of the food chain and nature is reliant on them to maintain food webs. They keep other invertebrate numbers under control and inadvertently protect our food crops by preying on insects that also feed on them, like caterpillars, whiteflies and aphids, contributing towards world food security.
They prey on the most abundant insects, like aphids, that we often try to control with toxic chemicals. Aphids have quickly and efficiently obliterated many young crops I have tried growing over the years. Most aphids are born pregnant and I won’t use any lethal gardening methods, so I am very grateful to wasps for keeping the aphid numbers down!
Wasps are also pollinators of both flowers and crops. They eat nectar all year round. Although they seek out pollen with far more urgency in the autumn, in doing so they transfer pollen which ensures new flowers and crops in the spring.
What should I do if a wasp is near me?
If you see a nest, keep a respectful distance and remember they are not interested in you at all. Or if a wasp investigates your jam sandwich, leave them be, they are just hungry and don’t realise it’s your food.
If you start swatting at them and become a threat they may rightfully defend themselves and sting you. What many people don’t know is that wasp venom contains a pheromone which signals to other wasps that there is a threat and they need help. Some siblings may seem to appear from nowhere to join the fight! An excellent reason to hand over that sandwich 😀
So, if there is a wasp near you be calm and be kind, they don’t mean you any harm and they are as vital to the survival of the planet as our fuzzier friends, the bees. Especially if it’s autumn, they are starving, have no home and will die when the weather gets too cold, so please don’t swat them, instead show them compassion. After all, they are the reason you have that jam sandwich in the first place!
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