Mention wasps to someone, and you’ll likely get a negative reaction. Wasps are often seen as scary, angry insects that are dangerous and likely to sting. While some wasps can be aggressive at times, and some pack a powerful sting, they are good insects to have around. They are the unsung heroes of our landscapes.
Why do wasps get a bad name?
As with many things, one individual (or group) ruins things for everyone, and wasps are no exception. There are around 103,000 described species of wasps in the world. Of these, 33,000 are considered stinging (aculeate) wasps. About 1,000 of these stinging wasps are social, think yellowjackets, baldfaced hornets, and paper wasps. These are the wasps that give the entire group a bad name and are also the ones we most commonly interact with.
While out foraging, social wasps aren’t particularly aggressive. That all changes when nests are involved. Social wasps, particularly yellowjackets, are notorious for aggressively defending their nests, which can result in painful stings for those who venture to close or disturb their nests. But it’s not just wasps that will do this; social bees, like honey bees, and ants, will also defend their nests from perceived threats.
So why do wasps get a worse name than other singing insects? Is it because their stings are, on average, more painful? Or is it because we don’t recognize or are unaware of the benefits they provide like we do bees?
The benefits of wasps
Bees get most of the attention when it comes to pollinating insects, but wasps also act as pollinators. While the larva of most wasps are carnivores (gall wasps would be an exception), the adults feed on sugars, often in the form of nectar. While feeding on nectar, wasps may also pollinate flowers. In some cases, wasps can be as efficient at pollinating as bees and can take the place of bees.
Wasps are vital for controlling insect populations in our landscapes. Social wasps will capture a wide variety of insects (generalist predators), including flies, caterpillars, and beetles, chew them up, and feed them to larva.
Solitary wasps tend to be a little more focused on what they feed their young, often attacking one type of insect. For example, great golden digger wasps will paralyze katydids and crickets, bring them to their burrows as food for their young. Others, like the blue-winged wasp, will dig into the ground to paralyze and lay eggs on grubs like those of green June beetles.
Parasitoid wasps are also incredibly important in controlling insect populations. Most parasitoid wasps are small; you would probably confuse them for a gnat. They may only attack one type of insect, like caterpillars, or in some cases, one species. They will attack various insects, including aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, caterpillars, and insect eggs.
In addition to being pollinators and predators, wasps are also a food source for a variety of organisms, from birds, mammals, spiders, and other insects. Wasps can even help disperse seeds of native plants like Trilliums. While wasps can be annoying and painful at times, their benefits far outweigh their drawbacks.
Good Growing fact of the week: Stingers of wasps (as well as bees and ants) are modified egg-laying devices (ovipositors). Since only females lay eggs, only females have stingers and are, therefore, capable of stinging.
***Courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension***