Why Do We Love Bees but Hate Wasps?

close-up photo of common wasp, Vespula vulgaris
We don't have the emotional connection with wasps that we have with bees. Maciej Olszewski/Shutterstock

Most of us have a soft spot for bees. We think about how important they are for pollinating flowers and crops and for providing honey. We worry that they're disappearing and wonder what we can do to save them.

But when it comes to wasps, our emotions usually aren't so warm and fuzzy. These insects are "universally despised," according to new research, and it's primarily because their role in the environment is misunderstood.

Like bees, wasps also pollinate flowers and crops. They also help regulate crop pests and insects that carry diseases that affect humans.

"It's clear we have a very different emotional connection to wasps than to bees — we have lived in harmony with bees for a very long time, domesticating some species, but human-wasp interactions are often unpleasant as they ruin picnics and nest in our homes," said study author Dr. Seirian Sumner of University College London in a statement.

"Despite this, we need to actively overhaul the negative image of wasps to protect the ecological benefits they bring to our planet. They are facing a similar decline to bees and that is something the world can't afford."

What we can learn from bee research to help wasps

A honey bee sits on a flower
Bees collect glyphosate from plants that have been sprayed with weed killer, and it ends up in their honey. (Photo: Ivar Leidus/Wikimedia Commons)

For the study, published in Ecological Entomology, researchers surveyed 748 people from 46 countries on their perceptions of insects, including bees and wasps.

Participants were asked to rate each insect on a scale — ranging from minus five to positive five — to describe their positive or negative feelings for each one. In addition, respondents were asked to provide up to three words to describe bees, butterflies, wasps and flies.

Butterflies received the highest level of positive emotion, followed closely by bees, and then flies and wasps. The most popular words for bees were "honey" and "flowers," while wasps reminded people of "sting" and "annoying."

The problem, the researchers say, is that wasps just have a bad reputation.

"People don't realize how incredibly valuable they are," Sumner told BBC News. "Although you might think they are after your beer or jam sandwich — they are, in fact, much more interested in finding insect prey to take back to their nest to feed their larvae."

In addition to the bad press, the researchers found that wasps just don't have the same scientific support as bees. The researchers looked at 908 research papers since 1980 and found only 2.4 percent were wasp publications, compared to 97.6 percent bee publications.

"Global concern about the decline of pollinators has resulted in a phenomenal level of public interest in, and support of, bees. It would be fantastic if this could be mirrored for wasps but it would need a complete cultural shift in attitudes towards wasps," said co-author Dr. Alessandro Cini of the University College London and the University of Florence, Italy.

"The first step on the way to this would be for scientists to appreciate wasps more and provide the required research on their economic and societal value, which will then help the public understand the importance of wasps."