It happens again every summer. Suddenly they are everywhere. Sometimes they even become a real plague. I’m talking about wasp exterminators. With their poison syringe, terror language and photos of dangerous-looking yellow-black animals, they crawl between the media reports to convince us that we should hire them after all. The misinformation they spread is terrifying. Often the photos are not even of the ‘lemonade wasps’ that they believe should be combated, but of friendly French field wasps, Polistes dominulawhich cannot even be tempted to our terraces with a glass of wine.
I used to have a life-threatening allergy to wasp venom. Then you can become fearful of a nest in your immediate vicinity. And when small children play in a place where a colony lives, some nervousness is justified. In all other cases, the danger of wasps is grossly exaggerated. Today that’s what I’m allergic to.
Wasps don’t fly around looking for a piece of bare human flesh to stick their stinger in. They’re not even interested in us. If they search for meat at all, it is to feed the larvae in the nest. They catch masses of flies, mosquitoes and caterpillars all summer long. They also help clean up the carcasses of, for example, hit birds by gnawing off chunks of meat. In exchange for their hard work, their growing sisters and brothers give them a sweet, sugar-rich substance. That gives energy to hunt while flying for that horsefly that will no longer bite us painfully.
At the end of the season, the queen lays fewer and fewer eggs in the nest. As a result, there are less and less larvae to feed and sweet material to snack on. At that time there are still a lot of workers. They don’t have much else to do than spend their unemployed hours looking for sugars.
They do this, for example, on plants and trees where many aphids live. Those critters excrete honeydew and wasps like that sweet stuff. Car roofs that shine with honeydew are licked clean in the same way.
Nectar-rich flowers are also eagerly visited, with such a wasp en passant helping with pollination. Some individuals also find our jam or cola very tasty. A few are fooled by the enticing sweet smell of perfume and then buzz restlessly looking for the goodies around a head. So hunting for sugars is what they come to do in our neighborhood in August. And that is when the critters are slammed in a higher or lower degree of panic. Sometimes a wasp feels so threatened that it stings. That’s not weird. When someone hits me, I also react irritably.
Instead of swatting, we could also thank wasps for their cleanup work and plant pollination in all those months we didn’t notice them. At a distance from where you sit, a saucer of jam or overripe fruit works wonders. Also for your peace of mind.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of August 6, 2022