Back in the spring, a large wasp was seen buzzing around the cabin. A queen of our most common social wasp, Vespula vulgaris, she was looking for a place to start a nest. When she had made her decision – between the oak boards by the back door of the cabin – we debated whether we should let her stay. We decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
They have such a bad reputation, but these social wasps really are wonderful! Along with many other insects that we civilized humans don’t like, they play a crucial role in our environment. The adult wasps only eat sugars, where possible wild sugars from flower nectar (but any sugars will do), and in their search for flowers they act as pollinators in the same way that bees and other insects do. They also capture a huge number of small spiders, greenfly, aphids, caterpillars and other insects, which they feed to their young in the nest. They play a crucial role in balancing our ecosystems: they are one of nature’s pest controllers.
So our busy queen laid her eggs, tucked away between the boards. Soon, the first young worker wasps (infertile females) were buzzing around, and as the summer grew warmer we had a happy stream of wasps to-ing and fro-ing from the cabin wall. Now and then they would buzz over, complaining about our proximity, but on the whole they got along perfectly well right beside us. If we didn’t pay them much attention, they didn’t pay us much either.
Yes, they do sting, but only if they feel threatened or confused, only in defence. We’ve been stung twice, and it’s irritating and itchy! When a wasp stings, it emits a scent that other wasps will smell, making them alert to the possible threat, so it’s important to step away. We may not understand why they feel threatened, but we have to accept when they do. We adjust our behaviour, giving them space to feel safe once again.
Mostly wasps sting in late summer and early autumn. This is because the nest’s social structure is changing. As summer nears its end, a small number of the eggs in the nest will develop into fertile males, called drones, and fertile females. The particular hormone that maintains the colony’s cohesion stops being produced, and these fertile wasps begin to swarm out of the nest. There’s a feel of uncertainty around the nest: they need more space to explore, more quiet to feel OK.
Once they’ve mated, the drones slip away to die, their work complete. In the nest, as autumn chills arrive, the worker wasps and the old queen also die. It is only the young pregnant females who survive: they will find somewhere quiet, alone, sheltered, to hibernate through the winter. Not all will make it – but those who do will emerge in the spring to look for somewhere new where they might set up their own nest.
Nature isn’t always easy, but learning how it works does help. I’ve enjoyed our summer, with our busy, curious, helpful, beautiful – albeit sometimes grumpy – housemates.