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Ask the Expert: Why You Should Welcome Wasps Into Your Garden

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Ask the Expert: Why You Should Welcome Wasps Into Your Garden

September 28, 2022

We humans have an innate fear of black and yellow striped things that buzz. Probably because of a millennium of us getting stung by black and yellow things that buzz.

Wasps, indeed, have a bad rap. But while being in tight quarters with frantic stinger-ready insects can be scary—particularly if you’re allergic—they should be respected, even celebrated! Why? Because they aren’t all out to get you. Because they are pollinators. And because they are your garden’s best natural pest control. (Got caterpillars on your cabbage? The paper wasp loves cabbage caterpillars. Tomato hornworms? When you see those white eggs on the hornworm’s back, they are braconid wasp eggs saving your tomatoes! Still other wasps feed on aphids and flies.)

Don’t believe me? Let’s ask an expert. Below, Heather Holm—wasp champion, award-winning author, biologist, and pollinator conservationist—answers a few questions about the much-maligned insect.

The vast majority of wasps aren&#8\2\17;t aggressive and territorial. Photograph by Artur Rydzewski via Flickr.
Above: The vast majority of wasps aren’t aggressive and territorial. Photograph by Artur Rydzewski via Flickr.

Q: People have an innate fear of flying insects. How do you introduce the idea that wasps should not be feared? Or feared less? What do you tell people to help them see wasps in a different way?

“I like to remind people that wasps are actually extremely beneficial and provide a number of ecosystem services that benefit humans such as pest insect population control and pollination. And, only a very small minority or wasps (social wasps) are prone to sting humans when their nest is disturbed. That means that 95 percent or more of wasps are solitary or parasitic and have no social nest to defend. Their daily activities of hunting for prey or a host, building nests, searching for a mate, and finding carbohydrate-rich food to sustain these activities go largely unnoticed because no negative interaction occurs. It’s important that we don’t generalize and assume that all wasps are aggressive or are likely to sting because that is not the case whatsoever.”

Q: What is the most amazing thing about a particular wasp that may change someone’s point of view?

“Wasps are amazing for many reasons. Most solitary predatory wasps have some degree of prey specialization. The wasp female not only needs to know where to find her specific prey—for example, a wood-boring beetle belonging to a particular family that has a handful of host trees—she needs to also successfully transport the prey back to her nest. Many predatory wasps hunt prey that is similar or smaller in size to them, and usually the prey can be flown back to the nest clutched beneath the wasp. But first, she must sting the prey and the venom, injected into the prey, causes paralysis. This makes the prey easier to transport,  ensures that the prey won’t escape, and remains alive long enough for her offspring to consume it. This is another reason why solitary wasps don’t want to use their valuable venom stinging humans; they need to capture and subdue multiple prey in their lifetime to ensure that they’re providing enough larder (food) for their offspring.”

Q: If there were no wasps, what would the world look like?

“Certain insect populations would no longer be kept in check by wasps, and that could result in an explosion of destructive insect populations. Also, populations of flowering plants dependent upon wasps for pollination may decrease.”

Q: What is the best advice for a gardener who is trying harder to live with something that could sting them?

“Wasps get sustenance from flowering plants so all gardens supplying a variety of flowering plants will attract wasps. Wasps are not interested in stinging us, particularly if they are at the restaurant (flowers) or hunting prey. They are solely focused on these tasks and have no reason to sting us. As I described above, most wasps don’t defend their nests either. It’s just a small minority of social wasps that will defend the nest; remain observant throughout the growing season to ensure you don’t disturb a social nest while working in your garden.”

The paperback version of Heather&#8\2\17;s book on wasps will be available next month.
Above: The paperback version of Heather’s book on wasps will be available next month.

Q: Are there any ways to deter wasps from nesting near a highly trafficked site?

“In the spring, look for social nests (made of paper) being initiated near doors and high traffic areas. When the nests are small (with few occupants), they can usually be safely removed by mechanical means. Don’t attempt to remove a nest in summer or autumn. This will result in someone getting stung. The nests are annual so if the area can be avoided, the nest will be done once there is a hard frost.”

Q: If you had a favorite wasp, what would it be and why?

“I am particularly fond of wasps in the genus Oxybelus. They are small predatory wasps that nest in compacted sand and hunt flies to feed their offspring. They are also extremely fast and difficult to photograph while visiting flowers! One species, Oxybelus uniglumis, has a really unusual way it carries its prey back to the nest: When the female stings a fly to immobilize it, she leaves her sting impaled in the prey then flies back to the nest with the fly attached to her sting(er)!”

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