Wasps are something that has been around for thousands upon thousands of years. There's nothing too scary about them when they're on their own, but they're certainly a little beast worth considering if you're facing down a pack of them, armed with an open jar of jam.
In this article, we're going to run through everything that you might need to know about the wonderful wasps in the UK, from their painful stings to their beneficial effects on farmland.
Before we get too intensely into this article, lets quickly pin down a definition of what a wasp is. It's very likely, of course, that you've already got a great definition of a wasp in your mind, but we'd like to talk a little about them first.
The basic concept of a wasp is quite simple - they're hive insects that live in enormous colonies of up to ten thousand distinct workers. Wasps can build nests within trees and a whole host of other things.
Some wasps within the colony will collect food for themselves and their larvae, while others will focus on building and expanding the nest. Once a good food source has been established, the wasps will typically continue searching, leading to pollination across the countryside.
Where Do Wasps Come From?
Wasps are a fascinating species of insect for one main reason - they're so old that it's nearly impossible to say where they truly came from.
They typically assemble nests from wood pulp, chewing and scratching a nest into existence, within which they live, and the queen gives birth to new wasps. This is all fairly well-known. The interesting part, however, is the fact that wasps have been found in fossils dating back to the Jurassic era!
This means that similarly to crocodiles, wasps evolved up to the point they're at today, and then functionally stopped - they're filling their ecological niche so effectively that there have been no other wasps diverging into distinct species.
Species of Wasp
There are a huge variety of different species of wasp, well over two hundred thousand! That's only the identified species, there are thought to be another hundred thousand out there yet to be spotted.
The most common species of wasp in the UK is a social wasp, yellow jackets. The yellowjacket is the black and yellow striped insect that has been disrupting picnics for decades. The reputation of that one nightmare wasp has, so a certain degree, destroyed the reputation of the rest.
The genetic variety of wasps is staggering, with a great example of this being the fairyfly, which is 0.14mm long, and only lives for a few days. It's technically a wasp, due to its generics, though it's not a social wasp. In fact, very few wasps are!
Wasp stings can be exceptionally painful - especially if you're not expecting it, or, worse if you're allergic. The key thing to remember is not to panic, since that will likely make the pain worse, due to the heightening of your instincts and reactions.
A wasps sting is a simple thing, really. The wasp presses its abdomen against the skin of another creature, allowing the stringer to puncture the skin, pumping venom into the other animal.
This venom is specialized to kill other insects, mostly, meaning that it really doesn't have that much of an effect on us. Of course, a wasp can be deadly if you're allergic to the stings, though this is fairly uncommon.
Wasp larvae are at the core of the process of reproduction, hatching from eggs within the colony to fulfill a number of different roles.
There is one thing about wasp larvae, and wasp breeding overall, that is quite interesting, however: females hatch from fertilized eggs, and males from unfertilized eggs. There are no exceptions to this rule, it's simply a genetic quirk of the overarching species to which wasps belong.
Larvae are hatched from eggs within colonies, where they're fed by workers within the hive. This is quite similar to ants and bees since they're all distant genetic cousins.
There are over 9000 species of wasps in the UK, some of which are social wasps, and some of which aren't.
The most common wasps in the UK are the common or German wasps. This species is the one that you swat at picnics, also known as yellowjackets. They will typically make a paper nest within the ground that's around the size of a football - they can also nest in roofs or trees.
Another common wasp species in the UK is the European hornet, another social species of wasp that is commonly around in late summer. It's unlikely to bother you at picnics, thankfully, with most of the bugs staying very close to the hive. They typically nest within tree cavities.
Interestingly, a number of wasp species show something called Müllerian mimicry, in which they display similar physical attributes to scare away predators or attract prey. This can be seen in wasps since so many of them share black-yellow striped features.
Finally, we want to quickly mention the red wasp, which is quite distinctive among insects. They have a red tinge on their abdomens that makes them quite easy to spot among groups of wasps. Furthermore, their nests are smaller than other species, and they're always underground.
Of all the total species of wasps in the UK, there are only eight species of solitary wasps. The simplest way to think of them is to compare them more to a mammal than an insect - they tend to live alongside or with a mating partner, and raise their young on their own.
Solitary wasps as the ones that typically offer the most benefits to humans, since they're the ones that will engage in actively predatory behavior upon other insects. This can allow them to work very efficiently as pest control in some situations, where they'll actively hunt and kill pest-destroying insects.
Social wasps are the most common species in the UK, though they're less common elsewhere in the world. The best way to think of social wasps is to compare them to the concept of a beehive that you're likely already quite familiar with.
To put things simply, social wasps will typically live alongside thousands of their comrades and are all born to a single queen. Like bees, they tend to larvae and, also like bees, they tend to keep themselves to themselves.
Within a hive, social wasps are likely to have a range of different roles. Some wasps, called drones or workers, are likely to do most of the nest-building activities. There will be other social wasps that gather food and carry out pollinating activities, and yet more social wasps that tend to the queen, making sure she's fed and happy.
The end result of all that a social wasp works towards is simple - colonies packed with enough sugary liquid to help young and adult wasps survive through the winter.
Do Wasps Sting
Yes, wasps do sting. They most commonly sting when they're disturbed, or otherwise just feel generally hassled by your presence.
The good news is that wasp venom has evolved to be effective on insects, not humans. This means that while it hurts, it's rare that stings have a terrible effect on humans.
What to Put on a Wasp Sting
Stings leave a raised red mark, typically, which is a small form of swelling that your body does to aid the healing process. Frustratingly, this swelling isn't always effective, just as it isn't when you've been stung by a wasp.
Therefore, the first port of call is to use an ice pack or something similar to reduce swelling. Once the swelling has reduced, you may not feel the need to apply anything. If you do feel the need to, though, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can relieve redness, itching, and swelling in short order.
How Long Does The Wasp Sting Last
Typically, the symptoms don't last for very long. In the best-case scenario, the symptoms will improve after a few hours, though they can take days or a little longer to properly go away.
If the symptoms of the sting are exceptionally severe, then make sure to check in with a doctor so that they can have a look. Furthermore, if regular-level symptoms last for a week or longer, go to a doctor - the symptoms shouldn't last for that long.
After you've treated the sting and it's starting to fade, we'd recommend another course of treatment - thinking up a rude name for the wasp that stung you. Unlike bees, wasps don't die when they sting something. That means that the wasp that stung you is likely still out there, and thinking up a rude name could be a useful form of comedic therapy.
What do Wasps do?
This is a bit of a tricky question to answer, but when we're considering what wasps tend to do for humans, they're most important for their pollinating ability.
Both social species of wasp and solitary wasps spend a lot of their time flying between different flowers, gathering essential material to feed to their larvae. Therefore, they'll do a lot of pollinating in late summer and early autumn, when flowers are in an exceptional state of bloom.
What do Wasps Eat?
Both social and solitary wasps only feed on sugars. They tend to find these sugars on fruit and flowers in late summer, though there is a range of different methods of gathering it.
Bees typically gather their sugar through nectar, and wasps can do the same. Furthermore, a nectar-like liquid is produced by the young of most wasps, and the adults of a species can eat that.
Wasps in the UK
There are over 9000 species of wasps in the UK, and a number of different scientific journals, such as national geographic, take a lot of time ruminating and discussing different ones.
Something that we would consider important to bear in mind when considering wasps in the UK is that the vast majority aren't the aggressive, brutal species that national geographic does love to comment on. Instead, they're kindly, social species that only tend to get aggressive when you're in their space.
How Long do Wasps Live
Wasps can live for a range of different time frames depending upon what species they're from, and what kind of access to nests and colonies they have.
The fairyfly, for example, is exceptionally small, and only lives for a few days. Most larger wasps, however, tend to live for twelve to twenty-two days. This allows them to evolve quickly and spread like wildfire in the right conditions.
Do Wasps Make Honey?
No, they don't make honey. There is one species of wasp that makes honey (the Mexican honey wasp) but this wasp produces honey on an exceptionally small scale, nowhere near that of bees.
Wasp nests can be a pain to deal with and quite scary to look at. The thing that often makes them scarier than the nests of bees, for example, is that they look as though they're maliciously spreading over the surface of sheltered places, rather than being fairly bulbous and inoffensive as a bees nest is.
What Does a Wasp Nest Look Like?
Wasp nests are made from wood pulp, commonly from the thing that they're nesting on, and saliva. This forms a papery substance which they essentially spit into small walls and floors. These nests are commonly built to provide good access to the outside while also protecting inhabitants.
Wasp nests are quite similar to the webs of spiders in one key way - they're typically built in the extreme of a corner, making them hard to get to.
How Many Wasps in a Nest?
Within a nest, there can be as many as ten thousand individual insects. This is quite rare, though, and the number will commonly be smaller than that.
Common wasp nests in the UK will typically contain between 3000 and 5000 wasps, though most are even a little smaller than that. A wasp holding that many insects would typically be about thirty centimeters (or a foot) in diameter.
Do Wasps Hibernate?
Yes and no - let us explain.
Within an individual colony, there is only ever one queen. There are rare occasions in which there are things reminiscent of coups or power struggles where competing wasps try to become queens, but they're quite rare in the grand scheme of things.
As the weather gets cooler, the majority of the insects in a nest will die off. Not from cold, but rather from lack of food. As they starve, the queen will begin to hibernate, allowing her to rest through the winter and remain fairly safe from hibernation. Another insect or spider could come and eat her while she's hibernating, though this itself is quite rare.
Five Facts About Wasps
Their homes are made from a combination of saliva and wood pulp.
There are over 200,000 species of wasps throughout the whole world.
Social wasps tend to only eat and gather sugary liquid. They will hunt prey, though, which will be dismembered and taken back to the hive for the young.
Nectar is a common meal among wasps, just like bees and ants.
Spiders and wasps tend to fight it out quite a lot around the world - they are close to the top of their small food chain, allowing them to wage war on one another.
Where do wasps go in winter?
During the winter, most wasps in a colony actually die from starvation, not the cold. They don't become prey, either, as some people think - the cold does make them slower and a little stupider, but a well-built nest will prevent them from becoming any form of prey.
The only wasp that regularly survives the winter is a queen - she hibernates through the winter, before building a new nest and laying eggs in the springtime.
Differences from bees
The most famous difference from bees is that wasps can sting multiple times without there being any negative effects on them. Bees, however, can only sting once. This marks a clear line in the sand for bees and wasps - bees are more likely to be prey, only using their stingers in an absolute emergency to defend the colony.
Natural pest control
Solitary species of wasps make excellent natural pest control! The reason for this is that a number of these species make prey of insects that we would consider to be some of our worst pests.
They might lay their eggs within a prey creature, or form their nest in such a way that they catch (and thereby deter) a range of pests. Either way, they're exceptionally effective.
We hope that this article has bought you into the club of wasp fans out there in the world, we know it's bought us into the fold! Wasps as fascinating creatures, even if they are a little scary. Compared to other animals, however, they'll certainly get more consideration now.