What's The Point In Wasps?

By James O Malley on at

If you watched Planet Earth 2 last night then like us, you'll have been horrified by the evil wasps, stealing tadpoles before they had even hatched.

Evil! Thank goodness there was a heroic father frog to fight it off.

Twitter wasn't a fan of the wasps either. Here's some examples:

And this made us wonder... what actually is the point in wasps? To find out we got in touch with Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. Here's our Q&A:

Giz: What are wasps, biologically speaking? What are they closest to in evolutionary terms?

Dave: Wasps belong to the huge and enormously successful insect group the Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and ants. This group includes most of the social insects, those that live in large colonies with a queen and workers. However, the large majority of wasp species are solitary creatures. There are 9,000 species of wasp in the UK alone, but most of them never get noticed as they are rather small. In common parlance the term β€˜wasp’ is often used to mean one of a group of species of large yellow and black social wasps.

Giz: What's the evolutionary advantage of the yellow and black stripes found on many wasps?

Dave: The yellow and black stripes have evolved as warning colours, to tell predators that they have a sting. This pattern has evolved independently many times, and is also mimicked by harmless species such as many hoverflies. Bees descended from wasps – they are wasps turned vegetarian. They also use this same pattern for the same purpose.

Giz: Why do you think wasps have such a poor reputation compared to bees? Do the two play different roles in nature?

Dave: Wasps have a poor reputation because the big yellow and black species can be a little aggressive in late summer near their nests, and they like to steal our food at picnics. However, they perform an important role as predators of pest insects such as greenfly, and they also perform a role as pollinators (though they are not as important as bees in this respect. Despite their sting they also provide food for some birds, and their nests are host to many other interesting parasitic and commensal creatures. ). In short, we should coexist with these creatures.

Giz: Do we need them? What would happen if we wanted to and were somehow able to make wasps go extinct? How would you make the case for the defence?

Dave: I think we should not always be questioning what use creatures are to us. That is a staggeringly selfish but very common view of nature. One might say, what good is a slug, or a mosquito? Or, for that matter, a Giant panda, or a hummingbird? We share this planet with perhaps 10 million species, and they all have as much right to exist as we do. We might ask not what nature does for us, but what we can do for nature. What use are humans?

Consider us told!

Dave is the author of A Sting in the Tale, and A Buzz in the Meadow (as well as a more academic book on bees). Check 'em out - and perhaps think again before you dismiss wasps as evil.