Recently 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.
I 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.