The common wasp: what they eat, how they build their nests - and why a wasp stings
Adam Hart explains why we should love wasps - not loathe them
What is the common wasp?
Wasps are perhaps the most misrepresented of all animals. The common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, is a champion predator, homemaker and carer as well as being one of nature’s most superb architects.
The species has the most fascinating social life and, up close, is stunningly beautiful. Common wasps are also remarkable pest controllers – taking huge numbers of caterpillars from crops and gardens. Predators in general increase biodiversity, and wasps do a bit of pollinating along the way, too. We should treasure them, rather than loathe them!
How big is the common wasp?
Common wasps are usually up to 2cm in length
What do common wasps eat?
Adult wasps are omnivores – though they regularly visit flowers to feed on nectar, they are primarily insect predators, taking flies, bugs, aphids, caterpillars (or whatever they can get) and feeding the chewed remains to their grubs back in the nest (the larvae are wholly carnivorous).
Wasps are also highly successful scavengers, and in summer are attracted to fallen fruit, cream teas, barbecues, rubbish bins – and carrion. The insects have powerful jaws to despatch their prey, and these are also useful for tearing morsels of decaying flesh from any animal remains they might come across.
Back in the nest the wasp grubs accept animal protein from all sources. Wasps attracted to carrion will also attack the blow flies and maggots on the corpse, giving them a variable position in the complex ecological web of death, decay and recycling.
Why do wasps have such a bad reputation?
Common wasps are attracted to picnics, because we have what they want – sugary foods and lovely little morsels of protein ready to be carried off to feed their sisters back at the nest. Even as a wasp-lover, I have to confess to sometimes being a little bothered by them at the end of the summer, if I am eating or drinking outside. But many is the time I have seen honeybees bothering a beer garden and wasps getting the blame!
How do wasps build their nests?
The common wasp nest is incredible. Hexagonal ‘combs’ house larvae, and an envelope protects and insulates.
The whole thing is made from paper. Wasp workers collect wood pulp and use their mouths to create papier mâché. Look closely and you actually see each worker’s contribution in the different sections. If you find an old common wasp nest, take a look at one of nature’s marvels. If it’s active then, from a safe distance, look at the endless passage of workers moving in and out – bringing food for larvae, pulp to extend the nest and removing the rubbish.
What is the social structure of a common wasp colony?
Colonies have a queen and hundreds, or even thousands, of female workers. The queen is the mother and the workers her daughters. While the queen lays the eggs, the workers look after the colony. Males and potential new queens are produced at some point and, after mating, the potential queens overwinter, ready to start a colony from scratch come spring.
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Why do wasps sting?
The common wasp stings for defence. Stinging is a dangerous activity, because the animal being stung is unlikely to take it well! Contrary to what many think, wasps are not especially aggressive but, and I speak from experience, if you mess with their nests then expect some pain. Their iconic black and yellow stripes are an example of aposematic coloration, an advertisement that the animal is not worth tangling with: simply, they mean danger!
Main image © Getty Images
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