Don’t be Anti-Social!

A stunning Queen Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media) in Merrions Wood.

I thought I’d take a few moments to sing the praises of social wasps.  Stay with me here.  Okay, they ruin your picnics and climb in your beer, buzz ’round your head and have friends in low places… We quake in fear of squishing one in fear of some chemically-induced retribution by the hive on behalf of their fallen comrade.  And even I must admit that until recently they were amongst the creatures that I refer to as being ‘from the EVIL DIMENSION’ like spiders, scorpions, and anything basically that could sit in the bottom of your shoe waiting to skewer an unsuspecting toe as you slip your foot in.

Another beauty:  The Norway Wasp (Dolichovespula norvegica).

Part of this fear I blame on my upbringing in Florida.  Its one of those places where a healthy respect is quickly learned for anything with more than four legs.  You are taught the wisdom of tapping out shoes before putting them on, and checking under the toilet seat before sitting down (both of which I still do out of either habit or superstition!).  But I think that there is something to be said for the idiom that we ‘fear what we don’t understand’, and as such, I made it a personal quest in 2010 to learn more about wasps. [We will leave spiders for another day, and I will tell you how I was ‘cured’ of my arachnaphobia at Dudley Zoo for £20!].

Wasps dont tend to register on most people’s radar until this time of year – we are all familiar with the ‘mad wasps’ of late summer and early autumn.  It might at least help you to understand the reason for their seemingly senseless obsession with ruining your day.  The thing is that wasps are carnivores (this is the main difference between wasps and bees by the way!), and prey on flies, grubs, etc to eat and also to feed to their larvae.  But towards the end of the summer, the larvae transform into adults, leaving the wasps free to basically go on a crusade for carbs!  This is why sugary drinks (including alcohol), jam sandwiches, tomato ketchup and any other goodies that are part of our picnic & barbeque season are so attractive to them.

The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) eating a fly at the Grange before the Carb Craze kicks in!

I think that most people think that there are two kinds of social wasps:  Common Wasps and Hornets.  And maybe a few more people know about German Wasps.  But you might be surprised to find out that there are actually 9 species in the UK alone!  Generally speaking the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) is the least pleasant of the 9, by which I mean the one most likely to act aggressively, be overly-curious about your lunch, and generally make a pest of itself.  Hornets (Vespa crabro) on the other hand, although by far our biggest social wasp, are among the more placid species.

Hornets aside, the remaining 8 species are divided into two groups:  Dolichovespula and Vespula (or, to we normal folk:  Dollies and Vespies).  And they are actually pretty easy to separate, especially if you have a hand lens or magnifying glass:  [here comes the science bit!]  Dollies have a large ‘Malar Space’ and Vespies have a small one.  What you’re looking for is the gap between the eye and the jaw:

Dolichovespula (Left) has a large malar space, and Vespula (Right) has a small one!  Simples!

You might also notice that they are actually quite hairy little creatures, a fact that  surprised me when I first looked at one beneath a microscope.  Gradually, over a few years of learning about them, and looking at them closeley, my fear has subsided.

Now, as I don’t expect to have ‘cured’ you by writing this, the other thing I can do is to give you a few tips on avoiding a nasty encounter with a wasp this summer…

  1. Avoid wearing bright clothing, as bright yellow, orange and white can attract wasps.
  2. Likewise, avoid strong scents – perfumes will attract them, so go without during the day, and try to opt for unscented deoderants, etc.
  3. Keep your dog on a lead, or at least close to you, as their curiosity can get them into trouble with wasps!
  4. Make sure your drinks have screw-top lids, so they don’t attract wasps.
  5. Wrap up food or cover it when you’re not eating it.
  6. Remember to wipe up sticky fingers and faces!
  7. Try not to panic – fast movements, running or swatting will just aggravate them – the best thing to do is to walk away slowly.

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