Why You Should Love Wasps

https://i1.wp.com/www.goodriddancepestservices.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/wasp.jpgRecently a member of the public wrote to the Guardian newspaper to ask other readers to propose species that were, from an ecological point of view ‘useless’. That is, their removal would not produce any large changes to the abundance of other species or alter any biogeochemical cycles. Can you guess which species they chose to illustrate this question with? A wasp. A German Wasp (Vespula germanica), which along with the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris), stinging nettles and dog dirt are the only appreciable natural hazards that the British Isles possess. Like many other species of the order Hymenoptera, these insects have modified ovipositors that no longer lay eggs but sting. The thing is, whereas bees either make honey or look fluffy and bumbling, these black and yellow wasps seem to do nothing but ruin whatever weather passes for a British summer by pestering picnics and raiding barbecues.

For most of us, getting stung by a wasp is not a great deal of fun. For an unlucky few it can be a very unpleasant or even life-threatening experience because they are stung somewhere such as inside the throat or undergo an extreme immune system reaction to the venom and enter anaphylactic shock. In some places V germanica and V vulgaris are invasive species which in a relatively short period of time have wrought havoc on native ecosystems.

I want to consider our attitudes to these species in their and our native habitats. In short, I would like us all to love wasps. There are two main reasons why I think wasps are deserving of our affections. The first reason is to acknowledge that wasps are not in fact useless but very important elements in complex ecosystems.

Adult wasps feed on nectar and sweet fruit (and possibly your unattended soft drink as they will be attracted to its strong sugary smell). Feeding on nectar means that wasps are pollinating species. But it is the feeding requirements of their larvae that produce arguably more important ecological effects as their larvae only eat solid food. Consequently, a great deal of an adult wasp’s time is spent searching for species that we humans would consider pests: aphids and caterpillars that eat the plant species that we want to eat or like to look at. More generally if one was to ask ‘what are wasps for?’ then one could do much worse than consult Alfred Lotka’s ground breaking work on mathematical biology. Lotka captured some of the myriad interactions between species in a series of elegant equations and showed the complex ecosystem-level behaviour that could result. It would be practically impossible to predict the impact of the extinction of V germanica and V vulgaris on the many species that interact with it directly and indirectly.

The second reason why we should care about wasps is analogous to why we should care about the rights of undesirable members of human society.

Wakefield prisonI can only speculate what The Right Honorable Theresa May did on the evening of 7th July 2013. Perhaps enjoy a glass of wine with her feet up on a desk in the Home Office while savoring Abu Qatada’s final journey from the UK to Jordan. Qatada first came to the UK in 1994. He was convicted in absentia in Jordan in 1999 for conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks. Although never charged, he was imprisoned for periods in the UK under anti-terrorism laws in response evidence that he had links to international terrorism networks such as al-Qaeda. The UK Government began attempts to deport Qatada to Jordan in 2002. There then followed a series of legal challenges with Qatada being released on bail, then re-arrested and detained, scheduled for deportation and then deportations being overruled. He was for an extended period of time a thorn in the side of successive Home Secretaries and a rallying point for some that questioned the priorities and even sanity of the UK legal system. Estimates of the costs incurred from his incarceration and the legal challenges to deportation ranged from £500,000 to £3million. Qatada was a controversial figure having both vocal supporters and being a figure of hate for many.

Some asked why should we care about Qatada’s legal rights? Why did the UK legal system go to such trouble, time and expense to ensure that when he was deported it was done in strict accordance with the law?

There’s a strong argument to be made that it is the rights of people like Qatada that we should be very interested in, because if we respect their rights and accord them due process, then we can be sure our rights will be respected too. The rights we enjoy in the UK have been hard fought for. The moment you qualify them, judge their applicability in terms of how worthy their holders are, you dangerously undermine them. You may not entirely agree with Dostoevsky’s observation that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” but a great deal of information can be gained by understanding how its least desirable members are treated by the legal system.

And so to wasps. They may be a nuisance. To some even life threatening. But if we can value them, give them due process and consideration then we should be in a much better position to consider the very large number of other species that confer valuable ecosystem services to us. The UK National Ecosystem Services Assessment recently attempted to capture the impacts that forests, lakes, fisheries, grasslands and other ecosystems provide to the UK economy and quality of life. The executive summary is: a lot. Global scale assessments of ecosystem services have concluded that their monetary value exceeds trillions of US dollars.

We have taken for granted that bees pollinate crops or forests stabilize slopes and reduce flooding. Climate change and other impacts we are having on the biosphere are threatening these services. In an important way, ecosystem services are very much like rights – you only notice how vital they were after they are taken away.

So the next time you see a wasp don’t immediately start waving your arms around, it will only irritate it. Instead, take a moment to look at it. These eusocial insects like bees, ants and termites have a great deal to tell us about how evolution works and how mechanisms of self-organisation can produce social structures. They are important elements in complex ecological networks. And they are important bellwethers to how we humans value and treat the rest of the species that we share a biosphere with.

8 thoughts on “Why You Should Love Wasps

  1. Thank you for speaking up on their behalf…. I celebrate massively when a wasp chooses to land on me. They are the most AMAZING animals. They are really quite friendly if one can overcome ones fears…..

  2. Sorry, ‘we deported Al-Qatada legally so we shouldn’t kill wasps’? Even if we concede this to be an even vaguely compelling angle the analogy breaks down because I believe the material point is that we DEPORTED him (I’m using caps in place of italics). We GOT RID of him. Just like we should GET RID of the wasps. Because, just like Al-Qatada, they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
    Butterfly and moth populations are rapidly declining so shouldn’t we be preventing wasps from shovelling caterpillars into their mouths altogether?
    I’m sure something else will eat the aphids; a selection of finches and tits for example. British birds are facing declining populations too and they really do have more use than wasps.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think it in part makes my point. You make the judgement that birds have more use than wasps. That is, you prefer wasps. Just as you prefer Al-Qatada not to reside in the UK. The rights individuals (or species – if they can have such things) have shouldn’t be swayed by individual preferences but rather thoughtful considerations of the consequences of conferring and removing them. There should be (I argue) a sort of a right for species to exist. Removing such rights arbitrarily or because we don’t value such species, like removing certain legal rights that certain individuals have, means that we necessarily devalue them. And in a way us.

      btw the reason that butterfly and moth populations are rapidly declining (in the UK) is not because there are too many wasps. Rather it arises from habitat destruction and in the future from climate change – both being driven by humans.

      • I have no personal feelings stated or implied, I am pointing out how flawed your arguments are.
        I’m aware the primary reason for their decline is loss of habitat, I wasn’t asserting the wasps are, just that you purport a ‘pro’ of the wasp population is caterpillar eating, and in light of the situation I wouldn’t consider it a ‘pro’ at all.
        Equally, the analogy of Al Qatada doesn’t work, we may not have killed Al Qatada, but we did get rid of him, legally and with due accordance to process, but we deported him and it’s not like it happened on its own, it was actively pursued. We didn’t let him roam free, we removed him. The correct analogous equivalent here would be for wasps to be, essentially, deported. They might have a ‘right to exist’, but using your own argument, we could definitely put them somewhere they’re not ‘terrorising’ our summers.

      • I tell a lie, I did imply feelings passively through semantics. But it is important to mention here that when I came across this I was searching for an article that would assist me in trying to at least understand, if not like, these creatures. Your arguments are only winning to an already convinced audience.

      • I can’t say to what extent I’ve convinced anyone to if not love then at least tolerate wasps. Perhaps just thinking about their intrinsic value or what sorts of rights we could imagine conferring to them is sufficient.

  3. Thank you or this illuminating and intelligent commentary. I feel very drawn to wasps after having a nest relocated from a well-traveled spot in our back garden. The man who came out to relocate them was the only one willing (for a price); the rest of the bee-relocation services suggested I was crazy and that I simply buy a can of insect killer. The man who came out, however, explained how gentle and docile wasps truly are — far moreso than are bees. He removed the nest close to dawn, when all the wasps were “sleepy” and pretty much unresponsive. He didn’t even “suit up” or wear gloves. He just picked up the nest and put it in a large screened container for relocation. I watched a few of them awaken and buzz about the container for awhile. I think that was the first time I really SAW them in their beauty and perfection. The way they fly with their front legs dangling down, the care with which they guard their nests and feed their larve, even the beauty of their markings and tiny faces suddenly came into focus. Now I save them whenever they’re trapped in the house, and we let them live freely in the garden. Sure, they can be annoying at outdoor meals, but I admire their taste for sweets and share it well. Most importantly, they do help pollinate and are a part of the delicate balance to which you refer. So yes, let’s love wasps and spread the sentiment…they–like we–are simply creatures doing their best to live and love life, in whatever way they know how. Gratefully, Joy

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