While Notes from the Sticks is taking a summer break, we are repeating some earlier articles from the series. This was first published on July 18, 2020.
IN my ignorance I thought there was only one type of wasp in this country. Amazingly there are 9,000 species here, and 200,000 have been identified worldwide, with possibly another 100,000 still to be discovered.
Many are microscopic and most of them don’t sting, which is why we probably never notice them. Of course the one we all know is the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). According to some websites it is often called a ‘yellowjacket’, but I have never heard this term.
Although it is known mainly as a pest at picnics, it is the most fascinating creature.
In the spring the queen emerges from hibernation, having mated the previous autumn, and starts scouting for a nesting place. These can be deserted mammal holes, cracks in walls or holes in trees. They can be suspended from ceilings. The queen strips wood off fences or branches and chews it until it is a material like paper pulp. Here is a queen collecting wood:
The queen builds a small nest with 20-30 hexagonal cells and lays an egg in each. The first young adults, all non-reproductive females, take over the work of nest building, maintenance and foraging for food while the queen remains in the nest, laying 200-300 eggs a day. Eventually the colony may number 8,000 and the papery nest is a work of art.
A friend sent me these two pictures of a nest taking shape in his allotment shed in Warrington. The first was in May and the second at the end of June.
The foraging workers are voracious predators and they perform a vital function in the ecosystem by controlling plant pests such as caterpillars and aphids to feed the growing larvae, which reward the workers with nutritious, sugary secretions. They are also important plant pollinators just like bees.
After a couple of months the queen switches to laying a few eggs that will develop into males and reproductive females. The colony is soon all adults, and without larvae offering sugary secretions the wasps are attracted to jam sandwiches and fizzy drinks. The queen’s task is now complete and she dies. As the colony winds down in late summer and early autumn, the remaining workers die off and the colony reaches the end of its life. The young queens-in-waiting mate with the males, and these females are the only ones that make it through the following winter to start the cycle again.
It is a shame that we are so ready to swat wasps. Obviously it’s a bit irritating when they try to share your glass of Tizer, but waving your arms and generally making a commotion makes them feel threatened and that is when they might sting you. They don’t do it out of aggression.
Footnote August 2022: A few weeks ago our window cleaner noticed a wasps’ nest outside my bedroom window. The window has been open ever since and not a single wasp has been inside as far as I know.
Still on the insect theme, another friend saw this beauty on a fly-tipped fridge in Croydon (ok, not strictly the sticks).
It is a Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) which is reasonably common in the Channel Islands but until recently only rarely sighted on the mainland. However it is now more often seen in the South of England. It is a day-flying moth which is even more spectacular when its wings are open.
It’s probably just me, but it reminds me of the last flying Vulcan bomber which I was lucky enough to see several times at air shows and during its last tour of the country in 2015 when it gave a display over Robin Hood airport, Doncaster, where it lives in retirement.