Wily wasps as vital to species’ survival as busy bees

This week, ‘bees’ is the buzz word in our belated race to conserve important fellow creatures on this planet. All are important, of course, and the more we investigate them and learn about them, the more we appreciate their roles. All and every one of the Earth’s inhabitants, we now realise, has a role.

However, we often remain old fashioned in our thinking and believe this creature and that plant to be noxious, deserving suppression or eradication wherever seen. Yes, it may threaten us but it almost certainly contributes to the lifecycle of something else which, in the miraculous chain of life, protects us.

Wasps are an example. They are universally vilified.

They steal honey from hives, they attack honey bees and cut them in half and fly off with their abdomens to feed their own larvae, leaving the bees still alive, now only head and thorax with no stomach and no hope of survival

Meanwhile, the excised abdomen is chewed and wrapped in small packages and fed to the killer’s young in the nurseries, which are paper-like nests sometimes reaching the size of footballs. Wasps do not have hives. Once, through my own carelessness, I almost lost my life to a drinking party of wasps accumulated in the dregs in a beer glass of a summer’s day. I quaffed the dregs without looking and, but for the reaction of my gullet instantly spitting them onto the grass, would have expired as their stings swelled my tender larynx and blocked the passage of air.

Wasps are primarily predators, hunters, and consumers of other insects. Some prey are benevolent species such as honey bees. However, the majority belong to the vast populations of plant-eating pests. Thus, their predation also reduces the need for toxic pesticides which poison the land. Without the protection of wasps in the insect food chains, global agriculture would be as susceptible to voracious swarms as were the crops of Egypt to plagues of locusts in biblical times. Indeed, they sometimes still are.

Wasps, like bees, provide their services at no cost. Despite their negative image, they contribute enormously, ecologically and economically, to global food security. While we hear that pollination by bees contributes more than a €100bn a year to the global economy, the works of wasps, both in predation and pollination is often, unfortunately, overlooked.

Hornets are the largest of our Irish wasp species. Fierce-looking insects, they attack smaller wasps’ nests, kill the adults and carry off the larvae to feed their own. They also attack bee hives also, but bees can fight back. Swarming over the aggressor, they turn up their thermostats. The hornet, in their midst, can’t survive the heat and is, literally, cooked to death.

Wasps survive wherever there is vegetation on the planet. About 120,000 species have been identified, and biologists believe there may be the same number yet to be discovered. Contrast this with a mere 5,400 species of mammals. Like bees, wasps also feed on nectar and pollinate plants and flowers.

Many wasps are specialists, living in symbiotic relationships with specific plants. An intriguing example is found in fig wasps. Without them, figs, calculated to be key providers in the diet of 1,274 species of tropical mammals and birds, wouldn’t survive. Together, fig wasps and figs have evolved over 60m years. Extinction of the wasps would annihilate the tropical fauna ecosystems.

It has been discovered that wasp stings may be invaluable for treatments of cancer in humans

Chemicals found in the venom of one tropical species identifies and destroys certain cancer cells. Ironically, some specialist companies still advertise wasp extermination services. As our warming atmosphere melts away life-sustaining chains of nature, exterminating any species would seem imprudent. Every link is vital to the chain.

Meanwhile, we have had an exceptionally beautiful spring, with every plant celebrating it. There is so much to admire.

In the hedgerows, whitethorns are decked out like brides at weddings, the landscape breathtaking in the sheer volume of blossom, and the field boundaries lines of white against the green of grass. On country lanes, the tall foxgloves stand guards of honour for the whitethorn brides. Valerian bursts from city walls in Cork and, any day now, red-headed montbretia will be flowering everywhere.

On Springwatch, the excellent BBC programme airing four nights a week, I recently learned flowers can hear. It seems when a bee passes, humming as it goes, the flowers within earshot produce a sudden burst of nectar to attract them. So, the flowers are like the old-fashioned girls we see outside saloons in the Gold Rush, splashing on more perfume to lure the passer-by in.

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