It is a common and natural feeling to think that, unlike bees, wasps are pests. It is well known that bees pollinate flowers, helping plants to produce fruit. And, as if that wasn’t enough, bees also produce honey. But what do wasps do?
There is no denying that wasps do not enjoy the good press that bees do. Wasps have a bad reputation, most of the time undeservedly so. But if you think wasps are just nasty stinging insects, think again!
Wasps are good for the planet and play a useful role in farms, gardens, and natural environments alike. I invite you to learn why, despite all our complaints, the ecosystem, and the economy depend on these undervalued insects.
The importance of being a predator
Simply put, wasps are predatory insects. Their evolutionary ancestry is the same as that of ants and bees, and they are all part of the genus Hymenoptera. Of the hundreds of thousands of known wasp species, only a few are nest-forming and social.
Wasp prey are usually caterpillars and small larvae that feed on crops. Together with other predatory insects, such as spiders, wasps are responsible for controlling their prey populations.
If wasps are eliminated from an ecosystem, the result is an imbalance that can be disastrous for plants. Their prey population will grow out of control, resulting in damage to crops and native plants, as well as reduced crop yields.
A predator that doesn’t eat what it hunts
A curious fact about wasps is that adults do not eat the prey they hunt, but feed it to their young. They may take them broken or whole, or even leave them alive (but in a deep state of sedation) for their young to consume fresh at birth.
Adult wasps don’t live long, so they don’t need much protein. They only need to load up on carbohydrates. Instead of eating other insects, adult wasps (both social and solitary) feed exclusively on sugars.
In nature, sugars come from flower nectar, sweet fruits, plant sap and honeydew produced by aphids. Wasp larvae also produce a sugary liquid that adults consume.
There is also a lot of sugar around humans, from our food and drink. This is the main reason why they come so close to us. The wasps’ continual search for sugar benefits us in other ways, as you will see below.
They are also accidental pollinators
When on the hunt for nectar, wasps can also become accidental pollinators, as they travel from plant to plant carrying pollen.
Their smooth bodies do not collect pollen as effectively as hairy bees, so their contribution may not be as important as that of honeybees. Even so, wasps still play a valuable role.
One type of wasp is incredibly specialized in pollinating a specific flower. Fig wasps, as you can probably guess from their name, pollinate the flowers of fig trees. In fact, they are the only pollinator of fig trees.
The fig tree cannot exist without the wasp, and the wasp cannot exist without the fig plant. Their importance to fig lovers cannot be overstated.
The pollination process of fig tree flowers is fascinating. Figs are inverted flowers. The female fig wasp enters the fig through a tiny hole called an ostiole.
The purpose is to deposit her eggs inside, but in the process, she loses her wings and deposits pollen from the fig in which she hatched. It then dies. Nature is cruel, but ingenious.
Without wasps there would be no wine
Well, here’s one reason why wine lovers need these insects. Wasps are essential for turning grapes into wine.
The yeasts on the skins of grapes are responsible for fermentation, the process that turns grapes into young wine. Interestingly, grapes cannot retain this natural yeast without the help of wasps.
Most yeasts can only survive in warm environments and die when winter arrives. The wasps are what keep the yeast alive between harvests.
Like us, wasps love sweet grapes. As they move among the grapes, they also carry some natural yeast in their bodies, depositing it on the fruit. Then, when the yeast begins to grow on the grapes, the wasps help distribute it throughout the vineyard.
Of course, winemakers may choose to add other strains of yeast during the winemaking process, to give their wine some distinctive character. But without the natural yeast deposited by wasps, human interest in growing grapes would not be the same.
As each summer draws to a close, and the wasps begin to retreat to their shelters, many may wish for a wasp-free world. But a world without wasps would certainly not be a better place.