Beautiful Native Plants

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

In Praise of Wasps

Southern Yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa)
© 2007 Beatriz Moisset
Most people I talk to express an inordinate hatred for wasps. They agree that bees are important because they are pollinators, but think that wasps play no role in nature other than mistreat us with their stings. It is time that somebody comes to their defense. I will do more than that; I will sing their virtues.

Eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons)
on introduced Queen-Anne’s-lace
© 2004 Beatriz Moisset
A huge number of insects qualify as wasps. But I intend to discuss only the ones you are most likely to encounter and fear because of their sting. So, I will leave aside all the parasitic wasps. They do not sting and you are not likely to notice their existence because most are small and lead obscure lives out of our sight. 

Parasitic wasp laying eggs in stinkbug eggs.
The cluster is 1/4″ wide
© Beatriz Moisset
I will only mention a couple of examples to make my point. A tiny wasp lays its eggs inside stinkbug eggs. Their babies spend all their larval life inside one egg and they come out only when fully grown and ready to fly in search of other eggs. The fig wasp does something similar. It goes inside a fig and lays eggs into the seeds. It also pollinates the fruit to make sure that its babies have food. The entire life of a fig wasp occurs inside a seed. When it reaches adulthood, it picks up some pollen and flies to another fig to repeat the story. I bet you didn’t know you were eating some dead tiny wasps along with your tasty figs?

Bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata)
© 2004 Beatriz Moisset
Getting back to the main subject, what concerns you in your garden are the stinging wasps. Among them, your strongest antipathy is directed to the aggressive hornets and yellowjackets. These and the paper wasps and mason and potter wasps belong to the family Vespidae (from the Latin word for wasp). Whether you like it or not, they play a valuable role in gardens and natural ecosystems.

Paper wasp (Polistes)
© 2004 Beatriz Moisset
The stinging wasps are relatively hairless, thinner than bees and with a narrow waistband. Yellowjackets have a pronounced pattern of dark brown or black and yellow bands. There is also the black and white hornet. Hornets and yellowjackets build large paper nests and raise hundreds of workers each season. They ferociously defend their nests against intruders, real or imaginary. These colonies last one year unlike honey bee hives that continue for several years. At the end of summer or in the fall, the workers appear disoriented and abandon the nest. At that point, they are likely to become a nuisance at your picnic table searching for scraps. Soon after, they die. The only survivors are the new queens that find a safe place to spend the winter and will start a new colony the following year.

Potter wasp
© 2004 Beatriz Moisset
Not all wasps are so vicious. Other members of the Vespidae family have a milder attitude than yellowjackets or hornets. Paper wasps build small umbrella-shaped nests where they raise a small handful of babies. Curiously, some people manage to feed paper wasps as if they were pets. Potter wasps construct adorable little pots which they stuff with caterpillars before depositing an egg inside. Several types of mason wasps build clay nests or use an available hole.

Hornet’s nest.
It hang from a tree at my friend’s front yard
the whole summer without mishaps
© 2014 Beatriz Moisset
Now for their good qualities: wasps are terrific pest controls. The adults need little protein and live mostly on nectar or honeydew, but tirelessly hunt for caterpillars, beetle grubs, grasshoppers, flies and other insects to feed the hungry larvae. They well deserve the name of biological controls or biocontrols.

Paper wasp (Polistes) nest
They grow to get a little larger than this
©Beatriz Moisset
I will paraphrase an organic farmer friend of mine: “We love our wasps, and they do a great job for us. If it weren’t for them, I’m afraid we’d have to use pesticides.”

Potter wasp nest on goldenrod leaf
© Beatriz Moisset
Remember that the wasps you see visiting your flowers have no intention to sting you. It is only a few species and only when they are near their nests that they become protective and aggressive. As a matter of fact, in the many years I have been photographing flower visitors I never suffered a sting. If you grew up hating and fearing wasps, it would be unrealistic to expect you to love them after reading this. All I hope for is that you start developing a healthy appreciation of the good things they do for your garden, cleaning numerous pests from your plants.


If wasps are giving you trouble, and even wasp lovers sometimes need to get rid of nests located too close for comfort, don’t rush to call an exterminator. Check some reputable sites and consider their advice.
*National Park Service
*University of Idaho factsheet
*Managing Yellow Jackets in the Puget Sound Region. Evan A. Sugden, Ph.D.
*University of California. Davis
*New Jersey Audubon Society
*North Carolina State University

© 2014, Beatriz Moisset. First published in Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens