Hornets, yellow jackets, tarantula hawks, oh my. Wasps might be scary, but a world without them would be a disaster.
Here's the thing. The wasp family is in need of rebranding.
While bees have become the adorably striped darlings of the pollinator set, the poor wasp – which belongs to the same order as bees and ants – is decidedly disliked. Wasps are trapped, sprayed, swatted, and squished. There are no "Save the Wasps!" campaigns, nor are there lists of "what to plant for a wasp-friendly garden." Wasps are getting short shrift here.
Now to be fair, bees do make honey, which is great for PR. Meanwhile, wasps have long been cast as villains ... and can be grumpy ... and have scary names ... and can pack a prodigious punch when they sting. But still, they matter, and in fact they matter a lot.
Seirian Sumner, a senior lecturer in Behavioural Biology at the University of Bristol writes about the maligned insects in The Conversation. She notes, "Despite their poor public image, wasps are incredibly important for the world’s economy and ecosystems. Without them, the planet would be pest-ridden to biblical proportions, with much reduced biodiversity. They are a natural asset of a world dominated by humans, providing us with free services that contribute to our economy, society and ecology."
Who knew? I mean, we all know intellectually that every creature has an important role to play and for keystone species, their removal can cause things to tumble into disaster – but emotionally, many of us would like to forget that fact about wasps.
Sumner says that there are more than 110,000 wasp species that have been identified, with nearly that many probably still unknown. They come in two styles: the Parasitica and the Aculeata. The majority of wasp species belong to the Parasitica group, who, as the name hints at, lay their eggs in other organisms. And they do so using elongated tubular organs called ovipositors. The Aculeates, on the other hand, are mostly predators and rather than having ovipositors to invade living things, they just have stingers. OK, I"m probably not helping with the appeal factor here, I know, but bear with me – that goriness translates to goodness. Sumner writes:
"Both parasitic and predatory wasps have a massive impact on the abundance of arthropods, the largest phylum in the animal kingdom, which includes spiders, mites, insects, and centipedes. They are right at the top of the invertebrate food chain. Through the regulation of both carnivorous and plant-feeding arthropod populations, wasps protect lower invertebrate species and plants. This regulation of populations is arguably their most important role, both ecologically and economically."
Essentially, they are master exterminators. While most wasp species are comprised of solitary types, the social species have a dramatic impact on insect populations. A single nest provides a windfall of ecosystem services, taking out tremendous numbers of spiders, millipedes and crop-chomping insects, Sumner explains.
Being generalist predators, they control an array of species, but not to the extent that they eradicate other species. Thus, they provide valuable, natural pest control to the agricultural sector – with their hunger for pests like caterpillars, aphids and whiteflies, without them, global food security might be a lot less secure.
And while they are generalist predators, they are specialist pollinators. They have an intimate relationship with, for example, figs. I've always known that figs and fig wasps go together like peanut butter and jelly. But until I read Sumner's essay, I had never thought about the fact that figs need wasps; and figs are an important keystone species in tropical ecosystems. Without figs and their wasp companions, more than a thousand mammals and birds would lose an important source of food.
Not only would the loss of wasps be devastating for fig-reliant species, but some 100 species of orchids also rely on wasps for pollinations. No wasps would mean fewer orchids in the world. That would be sad. Wasp species that work as generalist pollinators also provide similar services as do bees, helping plants that rely on winged assistance to get pollen from one rooted plant to another.
So heroic are these little warriors that they may even hold the keys to one of the greatest puzzles of all: The cure for cancer. Researchers have been looking into the cancer-fighting properties of wasp venom and have found that the venom of a Brazilian wasp can kill cancer cells in the laboratory. Only more research and clinical trials will tell if the wasp's biologically active molecules will actually lead to a cure, but the findings are clearly encouraging.
So sure, a yellow jacket may come and lift a piece of corn right off your plate while you are eating outside. And yes, a pack of ornery wasps can be a scary thing. (And for those allergic to their venom, even scarier.) But they also patrol our crops far better than we can, enliven ecosystems, are integral to the lives of many fruits and flowers, and may even hold a cure to cancer. As Sumner concludes, "They may be a nuisance on a sunny afternoon – but a world without wasps would be an ecological and economic disaster."
Read Sumner's complete essay here.
And for more information about how to coexist peacefully, see: Why wasps attack and how to avoid them.