I love wasps! Too often, people assume that all wasps are bad because they can sting people — but would the world be worse off without them?
Yes, for so many reasons! Many wasps pollinate plants, meaning they carry pollen from one flower to another. Paper wasps do this while they’re busy carrying out other business, while other wasps are the sole pollinators for their plants. For example, the hammer orchid is only pollinated by the Thynnine wasp. Its flowers smell like the female wasp and when the male visits the fake “her,” he picks up pollen, carrying it to the next orchid flower.
Fig lovers should know that the fig wasp, Agaonidae, pollinates each fig flower. These wasps are so small that you might not notice them on your fig flowers, especially since they are almost enclosed within the flower itself.
Many species of wasps stock their nests with either caterpillars or spiders. You can occasionally see them struggling with caterpillars that are as long as their own bodies, or big hairy spiders that are twice as big around, ferrying them to their nests in the ground. Down in the nest chamber they lay an egg on the stunned but still living prey. Imagine what would happen without wasps to keep those caterpillar and spider populations in check.
Many wasps live alone, such as thread-waisted wasps, and nest in dirt or make mud nests. Mud daubers build mud nests, visiting banks of streams and ponds, carrying mud long distances to their nests, where they create elegant tubes with individual rooms for each baby. Potter wasps sculpt mud into beautiful urns.
Wasps living in small nesting groups, like our red paper wasps Polistes carolina, and in large hives, like yellow jackets and hornets, make paper nests. It’s believed that humans got the idea for making paper by observing paper-making wasps. Paper wasps make hives like honeybees, but instead of using wax exuded from their bodies, they scrape small bits of wood from trees (or posts and picnic tables), mix it with saliva, and sculpt it into cells the size of their antennae. Yellow jackets and hornets are papier mâché professionals. They build hundreds of cells, then surround them all with a paper wrapper, much like a piñata. Just don’t whack them!
Speaking of whacking, most wasps will not sting humans or other mammals without provocation. If you swat at them, they feel threatened. If it is a female wasp, she may sting you. Stingers are modified ovipositors, the tubes that wasps use to lay eggs. Instead of being a short and blunt tube, stingers tend to be pointed and sharp, meant to pierce soft mammal skin. Wasps use their stingers to protect themselves and their nests, so if you ignore them, they usually ignore you.
I hope this allows you to live peacefully or at least respectfully with your beautiful and important wasp neighbors, observing their amazing nests and interesting behaviors.
Ranger is a park steward at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire.