A much-maligned species

We give wasps a raw deal – after all, we're the ones masquerading as flowers, says Éanna Ní Lamhna

Schools re-open this week and the pupils are hardly back in the classroom before they are instilled with a terrible hysteria about any poor, unfortunate wasp that may fly into the classroom. Such a visitor is greeted by screams and attacked immediately – bludgeoned to death if possible. Occasionally the wasp may land a sting upon its oppressor before its violent death, but usually not.

What is going on? Wasps have been around all year since March. They haven't ventured indoors in May, June, July or August, even though their nest in the garden or in the roof may contain up to 40,000 of their number. So why do they bring all this torture upon themselves in September?

Well it's all the queen's fault actually. She hibernated on her own all winter and emerged in March to start the colony. She chose the roof of the shed or the attic space or wherever as the site for the nest and began building by pasting up a small sphere of chewed wood and laying eight eggs in it.

When these hatched out and pupated, they became worker wasps, whose business it is to feed the next round of babies laid by the queen, who could then go into full-time egg production. And what do baby wasps eat? Well they are carnivores and they eat lots of greenflies, whiteflies and blackflies that are gathered for them from garden plants by their adult worker sisters. So a large wasp colony in the garden is very effective at removing such pests.

But what do adult worker wasps eat? Well they are fond of sweet things and, lucky for them, baby wasps exude a sweet spittle when fed, which is then licked off by their adult sisters. So we are never bothered by wasps in the summer, because they get all their sweet requirements at home in the nest. But by the end of the summer, the queen, who has laid about 40,000 eggs, is worn to a flitter and is feeling her age. She lays a special round of eggs which are fed to become drones or queens. These then depart on their marriage flight and the young fertilised queens go immediately afterwards into hibernation – exhausted no doubt! The old aged queen lays one last round of eggs in the nest and then dies.

And it is this last round of eggs that cause all the trouble when they hatch out. They will live for six weeks but they are the youngest in the family and have no babies to feed. Equally they have no babies to lick so must seek sugar outside the nest. They are better at smelling than seeing so if they smell flower-like perfume they will enter rooms in pursuit of the food it promises. However, if we have washed our hair in fragrant shampoo or washed our clothes in smelly washing powder and fabric conditioner, it is we who smell like a source of food to the poor wasp. They fly around our hair enthusiastically searching for food. But instead of sitting calmly waiting for them to cop on and buzz off, we launch an attack. So naturally the wasp tries to retaliate, causes us respond by inflicting grievous bodily harm on them.

Who is to blame for the hostilities? Who pretended to be a flower? Who had no food? Who attacked first? And who gets the blame? So let's hear it for the wasp – a much maligned species.