Thomas Quigley discusses the difference between wasps and bees and suggests ways to control dying wasps —a fiery and efficient garden pest-controller.
You’re in your garden, lounging in the sun with your eyes closed after eating your chicken salad.
Something buzzes by your ear. You lazily swat at the sound and then -- ouch! -- you feel that familiar, aching sting on your neck.
As your neck goes red and swells, the last thing on your mind is whether that dreadfully annoying insect was a bee or a wasp.
In this scenario, your attacker was most likely a type of wasp. Why? Because wasps are generally more aggressive and likely to be around public gatherings in search of human food.
Honey or bumble bees are more mild-mannered. They focus on the flowers, not your chicken salad or barbeque.
When a bee or a wasp stings you, you’re probably not paying attention to the curve of its waist, its colour or the shape of its legs. But if you were, you’d notice some key characteristics to help you identify it.
In addition, wasps appear smooth and shiny and have slender legs shaped like cylinders.
The common wasp that we mostly see in Ireland are Yellowjackets (Vespula sp.) and are bright yellow with black lines, spots, triangles or diamonds on their body.
The different patterns help separate the various species and over 10 species of wasps alone are found here.
Wasps make nests from a papery pulp comprised of chewed-up wood mixed with saliva and are the size of a football.
The wasps’ nest can be found in hedges, burrows, buildings, in attics and wall voids, and under the eaves of the house.
Nests are used for just one season and not reoccupied the following season. The abandoned nest disintegrates overtime.
Unlike honeybees, wasp colonies survive only one year. Queens are the only members of the colony that survive the winter.
In the Autumn newly produced and mated queens leave their old nests and search for protected sites in which to overwinter, such as under loose tree bark, old rotten stumps, or indoors, frequently behind curtains.
In April or May, each queen becomes active with warmer weather and selects a suitable location and starts to construct her nest. Each nest is built from scratch each year.
The queen will continue to actively build the nest, lay eggs and feed the resulting larvae until she has reared enough workers to take over the day to day running of the nest.
Workers will then expand the nest, tend the eggs and actively forage for food to satisfy an ever increasing number of larvae.
The queen will concentrate solely on egg-laying from then on, and a single queen may lay as many as 25,000 eggs over the summer.
Workers are coming to the end of their life-cycle in late August and September, and are particularly aggressive.
By early October the colder weather kills off the last of the workers and wasps disappear until the dormant queens re-emerge the following spring to start the cycle all over again.
Honeybees are only found flying from flower to flower but wasps are very rarely seen on flowers.
Wasps search for and capture insects, spiders, caterpillars and flies which they feed to their young. Adult workers chew and condition this meat, before feeding to the larvae.
In this way wasps are really beneficial to gardeners and horticulturalists as the wasps are aggressive predators of common nuisance plant and fruit flies.
But wasps become a bother in late summer when the adults change their eating habits and intensely forage for sources of sugar, such as the juices of ripening and overripe fruits, sweet human foods, sweet drinks and rubbish in bins.
The wasps’ sting is primarily used to subdue prey, but is also a very effective means of defence.
Wasps will defend the nest aggressively if disturbed, and the sting is thought to release a pheromone, a chemical signal that triggers other wasps in the vicinity to attack, so it is best to leave a discovered nest well alone.
The same pheromone is also released when a wasp is squashed; therefore swatting wasps is generally a bad idea if you want to avoid a sting.
Beekeepers gets lots of requests for help in controlling wasps but if a nest is located in an out of the way location and is unlikely to be disturbed, it is best left alone and ignored.
If, however, the nest is located in a “high traffic” area such as a busy garden or near doorways, control is justified to reduce the threat of being stung. If you want to control it, keep a few things in mind.
First, treat the nest during late evening or early morning when the wasps are less active.
Wear protective clothing, ie a long-sleeved shirt and trousers; tie sleeves and pants legs shut or pull your socks out over your pants.
If after a day, wasps are still flying back and forth, then repeat the treatment.
If you are uncomfortable treating a wasp nest, it is always an option to hire pest controllers or a friendly beekeeper may help you out. Do not attempt to manage a nest yourself if you are allergic to stings.
Wasps can disrupt outside activities where food or drink are served but control of scavenging wasps is difficult.
The best strategy is to minimise attracting them so wait to serve food and drink until people are ready to eat.
Promptly put away food when done and throw rubbish into a container with a tightly fitting lid.
Examine glasses, cans, and other containers before drinking from them to check for wasps that may have flown inside.
If a wasp flies into your food, wait for it to fly away or gently brush it away.
If only a few wasps are bothering your activity, ignoring them or capturing them with a net and crushing them may be sufficient.
Traps may catch many wasps, but not enough are captured to noticeably reduce their activity in the autumn.
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