Those Pesky Wasps! How to Deal with an Unpleasant Summer Guest

Aug 26, 2022

Most of us have a ‘not-so-good relationship’ with certain insects. That’s not to say no one appreciates a spider or a flying bug – you just may not be in the majority!

Especially when it comes to the flying stinging kinds – wasps, hornets and bees. They all make me mighty nervous, especially wasps. And with good reason.

Close Encounters of the Stinging Kind

My not so good relationship with stinging insects began at a very young age. And has, sadly, continued throughout my life. Amongst many examples, I cite the following:

Encounter #1, four years old. Testy summer morning in backyard. Constant boo-hooing about who knows what. Picnic lunch on patio. Mum fed up with whining, crying kid (me). Mum goes indoors. Tells kid (me) to bring in stuff from picnic table. Kid (me) places hand palm down on pickle jar lid to pick it up. Hornet on lid. Screaming pain. Screaming kid (me). Mother in kitchen door shouting: “Now what the hell are you crying about?” No sympathy there!

Encounter #2, thirty-three years old. Summer afternoon. Walking up street past corner store garbage pail full of sticky wrappers. Felt crawly thing on inner thigh. Brushed it away without thinking. Something nailed me hard with excruciating sting. Swiped again. Nailed again on the other thigh. Back and forth it went, six times! Wasp.

Encounter #3, forty-two years old. Big wasp flies in through car’s sunroof. Enters shirt. Jump from car at stoplight. Downtown rush hour traffic. Folks at bus stop witness mad woman tearing shirt off in public. Stung three times on stomach. Three huge hot red wounds the size of fried eggs. Evil!

No Wonder We Dislike Them

Sadly because of just such incidents, wasps have a bad reputation. Still, despite their aggression, these insects play an important role in the ecosystem.

Let’s be technical for a moment. Canada hosts thousands of wasp species, both solitary and social. The majority are parasitoids, which have young that eat insects or spiders alive. However, the most common wasps are the black and yellow striped, social species. We used to call them ‘yellow-jackets’.

Colonies of social wasps are considered annoying pests – they often nest in manmade structures and deal out painful (and for some lethal) stings if you get too close or annoy them. Yet despite our grievances, our ecosystem relies on these underappreciated insects.

Natural Pest Control

Wasps are best known for disrupting summer picnics – crawling all over your hot dog or around the rim of your glass of juice or wine, landing in the fruit salad and so on, but they’re actually very important in keeping the ecosystem balanced. Without wasps, the world could be overrun with spiders and other bugs and insects.

Each summer, social wasps in Canada capture a massive amount of insect prey, such as caterpillars and greenfly.

Perhaps we should be calling them a farmer’s/gardener’s friend? Wasps are hugely beneficial to our ecosystem due to the volume of insects they capture.

Why Do Wasps Like Picnics?

Adult wasps don’t eat the prey they kill – they feed it to their young. Social species capture insects, chop them up and carry parts back to the nest. Eeew. Gruesome? Perhaps.

By the way, we’re not the only species to love sugar! Instead of eating insects and spiders, adult wasps – both social and solitary – only feed on sugars. In the wild, sugars come from flower nectar and honeydew produced by aphids. Wasp larvae also produce a sugary liquid that the adults consume. That’s why wasps like picnics.

Where Do Wasps Go in Winter?

Wasp’s lives are dictated by the seasons. They need large amounts of insects to feed their young, so they’re only active in the warmer months, when food’s readily available.

Worker wasps die off in late autumn, while recently emerged females hibernate through winter. Only some survive the cold. Those that do emerge when the weather warms up and they begin to form new colonies, headed up by the queen, who lays eggs for the first workers.

Why Do Wasps Sting?

  • Wasps use their venomous sting to subdue prey and to defend their nest and themselves.
  • Wasps sting us because we’re perceived as a threat.
  • Wasps have smooth stingers that can easily be pulled out of their prey by the insect enabling it to repeatedly sting their victim – human or otherwise. Out of venom? They simply make more.
  • Bees, on the other hand, only sting once and die in the process due to their barbed stinger that stays embedded in their prey. Equally painful, but bees aren’t nearly as aggressive as wasps – plus, bee numbers are dwindling and they play a critical role in our environment, so we won’t malign them here.

Wasps may be very annoying to us humans, but like bees, they play a crucial role and have a relationship when it comes to maintaining harmony in the ecosystem. We may not like them but we must give them some credit for what they do (in between stings, that is).

And that’s all I have to say about wasps!

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