Friend or Foe?

“Top gate or bottom gate?”

It’s the usual question when we are leaving the plot. Our bits are at the bottom of the hill, furthest, we always smile (albeit grimly) away from the water taps and closer to the bottom gates. But it can be a tricky pull out, the tall hawthorn hedges make it difficult, if not impossible to see – pedestrians and cars.

So we often plump for the top gate.

Both gates are locked; plot holders have keys. So: get to the gate. Unlock the gate. Drive out. Lock the gate behind you.

Waiting at the top gate yesterday, I was aware of somebody calling my name.

“Know anything about wasps?”

“Come and have a look at this …”

Smashing bloke with a great sense of humour, always friendly and generous with advice, has been stung – quite badly – on the hand. Turns out he was putting some canes away in his shed and got just a little too close to a common wasps nest that’s hanging from a wooden rafter holding up the roof.

Wasp’s nests: what can I say?

Such delicately beautiful structures. Superb engineering, lots of effort and aesthetically pleasing. In our own back garden we have a Scandinavian (I like to think) stack of logs, timber, bits of pallet and chipboard) that we use as fuel for the fire-pit. It is not uncommon in early summer for wasps to fly in, land on the wood and chew off small segments. If you are quiet it is possible to hear their mandibles scraping away the fibre. This “wasp paper” is what they use to build the nest.

These common wasps are social insects and I wonder at their organisation, the strict functions and etiquettes of a creature of prey. Each year only a young queens will survive from each nest; hibernating somewhere through the cold – no-prey – spells of late autumn and winter. Wake next spring and know instinctively how to build a nest. How does that happen? How is it possible? She will then lay the first brood, care for them and extend the nest. This new generation then takes over the building and each successive generation will continue the work. New tasks are required however, maintaining the structure, caring for the larvae, the queen, keeping the nest site tidy…

One year I was disturbed when trying to go to sleep by an insistent buzzing from the bathroom. A wasp battering itself against the window. I let it out. The next night the same. And the following night. This was, though I didn’t immediately register it, a queen wasp beginning a nest – actually on our bathroom ceiling, flying unerringly back to the same spot with “wasp paper”.

Image result for common wasps uk Image result for common wasp nest photos

Sadly I had to destroy this nest. Fair to say, I think, that I will go a long way to help wildlife but wasps where I go to the toilet? Really? Some things are one step too far!

Naturally protective of their home (where young wasps are being raised in the matriarch lead nest) they will defend their “neighbourhood” aggressively. At this time of the year they will be tending the young and hunting to feed themselves and their nest mates and developing wasplings ( a new word apparently, they are technically larvae (grubs or maggots). During summer days they will be cruising in a very efficient manner, picking up small insects (including caterpillars of “cabbage white butterflies”) and taking them to the brood chambers.

Image result for common wasps uk

Later, when the queen stops laying, they will become less ordered, spend time sucking at fruit and become less predictable, more randomly dangerous. Because they are predators their sting can be used over and over again in a stabbing action. Unlike honey bees who can sting only once, leaving the barbed tip of the sting in your flesh and are then bound to die.

Both stings can be painful (extremely so) and in rare cases fatal. But wasps look menacing: beautiful, graceful but definitely menacing. Their pattern, their faces in close up, their body shape, streamlined and intimidating.

The nest inside the allotment shed is the size of a small melon, roughly spherical with the single, easily defensible entrance at the base. Wasps are flying in and out of it as we look. A local gamekeeper – when I was a child – would give us money if we could tell him where there was a wasp’s nest, even more if we took it to him. Anglers would use the maggots as bait. Perhaps they still do.

He doesn’t want to exterminate the wasps because like me he admires their part in the nature of the world. However he does realise that if he leaves the nest untouched he has to surrender his shed until much later in the year – and the consequences of the near presence of wasps in late autumn is usually not a pleasant one.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Fascinating creatures. You can buy waspinators (mimic existing nests) to deter them.

    Reply

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