Why wasps attack and how to avoid them

wasps
CC BY 2.0 Brian Fish

The mob mentality of social wasps can create a furious swarm when even just a single insect is aggravated, here’s the reason and why it matters.

There is nothing like a mad swarm of irked hornets or yellow jackets hot on your tail. It’s scary and potentially painful and for those with allergies, life threatening. There are some who prescribe to the school of search and destroy – that eliminating wasp nests at all costs is the best approach. And obviously if they present a clear danger, that’s understandable. But what many people don’t realize is that these weaponized insects happen to do a lot of good, despite their ability to inflict a bit (a lot) of agony now and then.

In all there are some 30,000 identified species of wasps, and although we are most familiar with the ones with whom we do battle with at picnics, there are many that do not sting. Wasps come in two styles, social and solitary – and in fact, most varieties are solitary and non-stinging. Colony-building social wasps, like hornets and yellow jackets, make up around 1,000 species.

But the remarkable thing about wasps, as National Geographic points out, is this: Nearly every pest insect on the planet is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae. Wasps are so adept at controlling pest populations that the agriculture industry now regularly deploys them to protect crops.

From flies to beetle larvae to every kind of garden pest that vexes, it’s likely that their numbers are controlled by wasps. Plus, wasps offer some pollinating services as well. While not as effective at getting pollen from one place to another as bees, wasps still do their best. And some species are rock stars when it comes to pollinating – fig wasps, for example, are responsible for pollinating almost 1,000 species of figs.

It behooves us to do our best to get along with wasps, and part of that is better understanding their behavior. Social wasps in distress send out a pheromone that is like a 911 call to the nearby colony; the result is a swarm of pissed-off wasps in an aggressive frenzy. (See more about that in the video below.)

So the best thing to do is to avoid angering even a single wasp. The UC Davis Integrated Pest Management program offers these tips to avoid bees and wasps, noting that unless a person collides with or swats one, they are unlikely to sting (and/or get mad and send out a call to the troops):

  • Bees and wasps can be attracted to, or may react to, odors in the environment. It is best not to use perfume, cologne, or scented soaps if you are going into an area of bee and/or wasp activity.
  • Avoid going barefoot in vegetation, especially clover and blooming ground covers.
  • Also avoid wearing brightly colored or patterned clothing.
  • If you remain calm when a bee or wasp lands on your skin to inspect a smell or to get water if you are sweating heavily, the insect eventually will leave of its own accord. If you don’t want to wait for it to leave, gently and slowly brush it away with a piece of paper.
  • When swimming in pools, watch out for bees or wasps trapped on the surface of the water. If you find bees or wasps in the water, it’s best to remove them to avoid being stung.
  • Stinging incidents often occur when nesting areas of social insects are disturbed. Be observant of the area around you. If you see insects flying to and from a particular place, avoid it.
And while not provoking wasps is good, for bees it may be even more important – wasps can sting over and over, but a bee stings once and then it dies. And bee populations need all the help they can get. So respect the bees and wasps and they'll continue playing their important roles in the ecosystem ... and you may have a few less stings to agonize over.

Tags: Gardening | Insects

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