A sting in the tale

A sting in the tale

© Paul Hobson

It's that time of year again! Wasps are gatecrashing barbecues and picnics up and down the country in search of sweet treats - but what are the use of these pesky party poopers?

Quick facts

There are some 9000 species of solitary wasp in the UK and only 7 species of social wasp. Of these only the common wasp and German wasp (social wasps that build paper nests) tend to pester humans.

Despite their formidable size and appearance, hornets rarely sting unless provoked, whilst hoverflies and sawflies - which are often mistaken for wasps - do not sting at all. These species use a clever technique called Batesian mimicry to fool predators into thinking they are stinging insects.

Due to the shape of their bodies, common wasps can't eat solids. They catch soft bodied invertebrates to feed to their larvae, which produce a sweet sugary spit in return. At the end of they year when the young are reared and queen wasps stop laying, this food source dries up and the worker wasps live on the sugar produced by rotting fruit and tree sap, often getting quite drunk in the process. They will then die come the first frost.

This is why wasps tend to be a nuisance in late summer. The rest of the year they are busy hunting and nest building.

But what is the point of wasps?!

Many people question the existence or value of stinging wasps, yet they are an important garden pollinator and pest controller, as well as food for animals such as birds.

Wasps are highly effective predators that control plant pests like caterpillars and aphids. Without wasps many common insect pests would have very few natural predators and we would struggle to grow plants and food! Wasps are also pollinators and research has shown that they can do as good a job as bees!

Repelling wasps

Using pesticides to control wasps can be effective, but these chemicals are harmful to the environment. So before you break out the spray, why not try these natural methods to control wasps at home or on a picnic.

As the adage goes, 'prevention is better than cure', and there are a few things you can do to avoid attracting wasps both at home and out and about.

Seal holes, crevices and other entry points into your home where safe to do so (it's probably best to leave overflow pipes and gas vents well alone). Wasps may also try to build a nest in your attic or eaves.

Avoid leaving sweet or protein rich food sources out in the open (wasps feed protein to their larvae and drink sugary solutions). This could be in the form of pet food or an uncovered bin of rotting compost or household waste. You could also pick up rotting fruit from the base of trees, but leave some for other wildlife.

Similar precautions can be taken on a picnic. Take foods in sealed tubs and keep the cap on sweet sugary drinks.

When out and about also try avoiding brightly coloured clothes. Wasps are particularly attracted to yellow and white, but can't see red! Don't over do the perfume (or deodorant) either. The strong sweet floral scent may attract them.

Plant strong smelling aromatic herbs such as mint or thyme in your garden near where you eat or socialise - wasps don't seem to like these and are repelled by the smell. Apparently they particularly dislike peppermint.

Research has shown that a blend of lemongrass, clove and geranium essential oils helps to repel wasps. you could try mixing these with water spraying on surfaces in or around your home. 

You could also try hanging a decorative decoy nest in your porch or under your eaves, which can be purchased online. Wasps are territorial and don't like invading another colony's space.

If you do find a wasp nest near your home, it is worth noting that if you don't disturb it, the wasps won't usually pose a threat. Although If you have a serious infestation, are worried about pets or children or are allergic to wasp stings it is always best to seek professional advice from a licensed pest controller.

The big wasp Survey

Scientists from the University of Gloucestershire and University College London want to find more about social wasps and which species live where. They hope to use data submitted by the public gathered over a number of years to find out what factors are affecting wasp populations.

Take part in the big wasp survey