Night takes Queen: where do all the wasps go in winter?

Season’s greetings readership,

As I type, millions of Vespula vulgaris (‘common wasp’) queens are in a deep slumber within dead logs, sheds, attic spaces, burrows, and innumerable other areas out of the British elements. Because all other members of a wasp colony die over winter, the survival of the queen is vital to regenerate populations in the spring and summer. But this process is far from simple, incorporating physiological and behavioural adaptations that must be timed accurately to prevent freezing, parasitism, predation,and starvation. The journey of a queen wasp is quite an incredible one involving death, opposition, sex, family, altruism, resurrection, and prejudice, and I would like to personally recommend it as a superior alternative to the biblical prose to which we are flooded at this time of year. Continue reading

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Friday brings many good things. Nevermind the weekend, we love hymenopterans.

Greetings readership.

Friday brings us many things. Many good things (besides the end of the week).

Today, the students taking the Biology and Taxonomy of Insects module on the Applied Ecology suite of MSc courses here at Harper Adams University were treated to a day consisting entirely of Hymenoptera-related (wasps, bees and ants) lessons, from Dr Andrew Polaszek, of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. Starting the day off with an overview of the Order, Dr. Polaszek went on to characterise the super-families using morphological and ecological definitions. The class later went on to try our hand at the initially daunting task of  identifying specimens to super-family, family or genus level based on various keys. The fact that the majority of students were able to identify the specimens shows the quality of the keys and the direction Dr. Polaszek gave to us. By the end of the afternoon, most students had been identifying specimens for 2h30m, with the majority actively enjoying the process, and improving over the course of the day. Continue reading

What’s the point of wasps?

‘But seriously, what is the point of wasps?’ This is a question I often find myself being asked. Unlike their cute, somewhat fluffy cousins, the bees, it seems people have a much harder time accepting wasps. Indeed, they often find themselves on the wrong end of extreme prejudice with people willing to swat them without hesitation; there is even an ‘anti-wasp’ internet meme! This ‘speciesism’ should hardly be surprising given the emphasis placed on pollination services provided by the Apiformes. Wasps however, also play an important role in the functioning of our ecosystems; the health of which we rely upon for our very survival.

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Perhaps the single most important thing that wasps do for us is the provision of ecosystem services though pest control. Many species of social wasp are veracious generalist predators, with each nest capturing and removing many kilograms of arthropod prey from an ecosystem every year (Harris, 1996). Much of this removed biomass is that of species which would otherwise represent significant pests to our agricultural and forestry systems. Wasps can be so efficient at predating on arthropods that in some ecosystems where they have been introduced they actually represent a conservation concern by out-competing native insectivorous birds (Beggs, 2001).

Given this ability to help maintain the functioning of ecosystems, social wasps have occasionally been deliberately employed or encouraged as pest control agents. The introduction of nests has been used to provide successful biological control in production of cotton, tobacco, cabbage, coffee, fruit and timber (Spradbery, 1973). In fact, it is surprising how under-utilised they are considering their apparent ability to effectively control pests. Due to their generalist nature, in many ways social wasps are more highly suited for bio-control than some of some of the specialist species which are currently more widely used. For example, not only will they help maintain populations of multiple pest species below the levels that might affect yield, they are also able to maintain their own populations by utilising various other food sources. This means that their population is not tied to that of the pest species thus there is no ‘lag time’ between the initial outbreak and the time when there are sufficient numbers of predators to have a controlling effect. Furthermore, the social foraging behaviour of wasps causes them to return to sites with abundant food resources, meaning they will concentrate disproportionately at sites with highest pest densities, unlike other biological control agents which tend to distribute themselves more evenly (Richter, 2000). This will allow for more efficient control as the most damage occurs at the sites of greatest pest densities, which will be targeted first by the wasps.

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Contrary to what some people might believe, it is not just bees which pollinate! In fact, any insect which visits flowers has the potential to act as a pollinator. This includes beetles, butterflies, moths, flies and yes, even wasps. In fact, some plants, such as the Chiloglottis orchids, can only be pollinated by a single specific species of wasp (Peakall, 1990). Wasps normally pollinate during their search for carbohydrate rich nectar, but will occasionally frequent flowers during their search for prey. Sometimes they are even tricked into visiting flowers in reaction to volatiles released by the plant! Some species have evolved the ability to produce chemicals to attract male wasps by mimicking female sex pheromones (Schiestl et al., 2003) or by releasing damage signal volatiles to mimic pest damage to attract hunting wasps (Brodmann et al., 2008).

Wasps also have much to teach us. It was by watching wasps create their nests by mulching wood that Cai Lun, an official of the Chinese court of the Han Dynasty, first developed the idea of paper around 105AD. This now ubiquitous technology underlies much of the functioning of our society and owes its inspiration to the remarkable wasps. Even today we are learning much about social evolution by examining the range of socialities exhibited by wasps along with the underlying genomics.

By examination of the services that an organism provides us, it may become easier to justify why we should respect and safeguard them. This carries with it however, the danger that we should only value an organism by what it contributes to ourselves. This narcissistic view is dangerous as in reality human-kind knows very little about the complex world we inhabit. Surely species have a right to exist that is not solely determined by their detectable utility to one other particular species? Even if wasps did not provide us with all of these fantastic services free of charge, I would argue that they are beautiful creatures in their own way. Each individual organism we see around us represents the culmination of millions of years of evolution. Surely it should be a pleasure to share the planet with these creatures. This, I would argue, is ‘the point of wasps’.

By Liam Crowley.

References:

Ballou, H.A., 1913. Report on the prevalence of some pests and diseases in the West Indies during 1912. Barbados, West Indies, Bull. 13, pp.333-357.

Beggs, J., 2001. The ecological consequences of social wasps (Vespula spp.) invading an ecosystem that has an abundant carbohydrate resource. Biological Conservation, 99(1), pp.17-28.

Brodmann, J., Twele, R., Francke, W., Hölzler, G., Zhang, Q.H. and Ayasse, M., 2008. Orchids mimic green-leaf volatiles to attract prey-hunting wasps for pollination. Current Biology, 18(10), pp.740-744.

Harris, R.J., 1996. Frequency of overwintered Vespula germanica (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) colonies in scrubland‐pasture habitat and their impact on prey. New Zealand journal of zoology, 23(1), pp.11-17.

Peakall, R., 1990. Responses of male Zaspilothynnus trilobatus Turner wasps to females and the sexually deceptive orchid it pollinates. Functional Ecology, pp.159-167.

Richter, M.R., 2000. Social wasp (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) foraging behaviour. Annual review of entomology, 45(1), p.142.

Schiestl, F.P., Peakall, R., Mant, J.G., Ibarra, F., Schulz, C., Franke, S. and Francke, W., 2003. The chemistry of sexual deception in an orchid-wasp pollination system. Science, 302(5644), pp.437-438.

Spradbery, J.P., 1973. Wasps. An account of the biology and natural history of social and solitary wasps, with particular reference to those of the British Isles. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, pp.282-283.