Seeing past the wasp sting

Ben Dolphin
A wasp found its way into my flat and settled on my windowsill recently. Being the snap-happy nature nut that I am, I don’t discriminate with my lens and therefore seized the opportunity to get a close-up photo of this much-maligned interloper, and then posted it on my blog with the accompanying blurb:

“They’re really rather beautiful, if you can just see past that sting”

The sentiment was genuine. That stark contrast of colour, with intricate black markings set against the bright yellow of its back, legs and head, and not to mention those cute wee club-like antennae. Yep, wasps are really rather exquisite. But I suppose a small part of me was also being deliberately provocative because I knew what the reaction was likely to be, and for the most part the sentiment drew hostile (and admittedly amusing) responses such as”

“Hmmm…no, I still consider them the spawn of Satan!”

“Give me a nice tick any day of the week!!”

…and my personal favourite:

“Bees are beautiful. These are scrotes.”

Beauty or beast?

Perhaps more than any other creature on these islands, wasps are viewed as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever, even so far as being viewed as malevolent. I’m reminded of a funny picture that does the rounds online every autumn when wasp annoyance is at its peak. It’s an anatomical illustration of a wasp where each body part is labelled, but instead of ‘wings, ‘antennae’ or ‘legs’ you get things like ‘loathing’, ‘resentment’ and ‘indignation’.

I can understand the intensity of feeling of course. Wasps can be both persistent and annoying in the way they crash our sugar-loaded social gatherings, and their stings can be painful or even bring on severe allergic reactions. Until a few years ago I’d never been stung before and had no idea how I would react, so when it finally happened I phoned my sister immediately and asked her to stay on the line while I waited to see what would happen. Thankfully nothing did, aside from a surprisingly intense but localised pain, and I discovered I could happily coexist with wasps.

I do have my limits, though. I remember watching a wasp land on a colleague’s arm during a ranger walk with a primary school, at which point all 16 kids started screaming and panicking even though the wasp wasn’t crawling on any of them. My colleague calmly told them that it was fine, because all the wasp was doing was sussing him out to see if he was food, and when it was satisfied that he wasn’t, it would fly off. The kids watched nervously and silently (save for a few tense squeaks) as the wasp shuffled about on his sleeve, and then it did indeed fly off without incident.

The rational side of my head knows this to be the reality, that they aren’t interested in me, but my pulse still quickens when a wasp buzzes around my head. This fact doesn’t make these striking insects any less beautiful or interesting to me, but back on my blog I wasn’t convincing anyone, and then weirdly just two days later I found my own wasp tolerance being tested in an unexpected way.

My new flatmate

I work in the Cairngorms and go home to Fife on my days off, and on the last trip home, because it had been unbearably warm, I’d left the window in the work flat open. When I came back two days later and went to bed that night, I closed the curtains and heard a buzzing from above. I just assumed it was a fly stuck between the window and the curtain, but when I went to open them and help it escape I noticed a small grey ball stuck to the top of one of the curtains, with a hole in the bottom of it.

A walnut-sized nest taking shape in my bedroom!

I kind of knew what it was but couldn’t quite believe it, so gently tapped the curtain again and a muffled buzzing came from inside the grey ball, which was an inch or two in diameter. I moved directly beneath it and looked up. I could very clearly see a single wasp inside, moving about the confined space, and occasionally I could got a clear view of hexagonal cells inside.

My first thought probably should have been:

”Erm… there’s a wasp’s nest in my bedroom”

But in actual fact it was:

”They’re really rather beautiful, if you can just see past that sting”.

Did I still like wasps now they were in my bedroom? I couldn’t help laughing, seeing as just two days earlier I was appealing to people to overcome their wasp phobias, and now here I was facing one of my own that challenged my huggy ‘love thy neighbour” sentiment. I sat down on the bed, just below the nest, and watched it with both fascination and trepidation. I’d seen large wasp nests later in the calendar year but I’d never seen one at such an early stage of construction, with only one wasp inside.

I studied it for a good five minutes, marvelling at the paper-like structure and the almost liquid-like patterns that swirled around it and made it resemble a gaseous planet. I then took photos up into the entrance, using a flash to get a better look at the structure inside. When I zoomed in on the photos afterwards I could very clearly see an egg in each of the hexagonal cells. By this point it was after midnight, I was tired and working the next day, but this was just too amazing. If you’ll excuse the pun, I was buzzing!

I was now wide awake, intrigued by the colour, the patterns, the external construction, the queen’s choice of site and the structure inside, but even more amazing to me was the fact that the nest definitely wasn’t there when I’d gone home just two days earlier.

“What an incredible feat!” I thought, and I decided to try and learn all about wasps the next evening. But first there was the dilemma about what to do with the nest and the wasp. Clearly I couldn’t leave them there on my curtains…….erm…..could I?

I won’t lie, for a good ten seconds or so I did consider accepting the wasp queen as a new flatmate, giving her my bedroom and then moving out into the spare bedroom next door. But in two weeks’ time a contract ecologist would be staying in the flat for 14 days and I doubted that even the most enthusiastic ecologist would want to share a room with a thousand wasps.

“….and this…….” I’d say as I opened the door….”is YOUR bedroom”


Hmm, maybe not.

Top: my bedroom nest on the left, and one of the larger nests on the right. Bottom: intricately and exquisitely made

I hated the idea of destroying the nest, of destroying something so intricate and exquisite, but living alongside it as the wasps grew more numerous would clearly be ridiculous. Nope, it had to go, but I consoled myself that it was better to do so now while the queen still had a chance of starting a new nest somewhere else.

I fetched a plastic bag and pulled it up around the nest, before cutting it free with scissors. The nest and the wasp dropped into the bag, and I hasten to add I wouldn’t have done this had the nest been absolutely buzzing with wasps as they will certainly react in self defence. This lone queen was very agitated but eventually I released her outside, and I kept the nest in the bag so that I could take a good look at it later. Before I got a chance to do so that week, I found two more nests elsewhere on the estate, which sadly also had to be removed. One was identical to my nest but perhaps twice the size, while the other somewhat resembled a lampshade. The former was at an advanced stage of construction and contained both pupating and unhatched wasp larvae.

The latter had the beginnings of an outer casing that was firmly attached to the underside of a table, from which a small stalk protruded downwards, and which in turn ended in a small clump of hexagonal cells. This was the most interesting of the three, because now I could actually see how wasp nest construction begins. Given time, the lampshade would clearly be extended to form a sphere and would end up looking like the wasp nest in my bedroom.

How and why do they do it?

After the queen emerges from winter hibernation she searches for a suitable nest site, all the while foraging for nectar to revive herself. Once she has identified a suitable site, she forages for woody surfaces such as pallets and benches, and uses her mouth to strip lines of wood away. I had never seen this process before, not until a few weeks ago when I watched a wasp stripping a very thin line of wood off a pallet. I could even hear it munching! You’re left with very distinct thin pale lines on the wood’s surface. The wasp chews the wood and mixes it with saliva, which forms a paper-like pulp for building the nest.

All nests start with just one wasp.

The queen first constructs a single stalk-like strand (called a petiole), at the end of which the first small group of hexagonal cells are built, whilst simultaneously fashioning the outer casing. Of course, describing the process in this very matter-of-fact way explains how the nest is constructed but it completely overlooks the inherent wonder and baffling complexity of the thing, and of nature in general.

What I find intriguing is how they know what to do. How do they know what makes a good nest site? How do they know to munch wood? And how in the name of tessellation do they manage to make perfectly-proportioned geometric shapes that interlock like that? I mean, try drawing a two dimensional hexagon. You generally need to have seen one beforehand to know what one is, and I guarantee that when you do draw one it will be a tad wobbly or disproportioned. And yet wasps (and bees) do it in three dimensions and without ever having seen a hexagon. HOW!!??

This question puzzled naturalists for centuries but ultimately it was concluded that wasps don’t set out to produce hexagons. Newly made cells are made cylindrical, with round entrances, but the heat generated by the insects working inside them causes their sides to melt slightly, and when surrounded by other tightly packed cells the surface tension pushes the cells into perfect hexagons of equal size.

Knowing how its made doesn’t make this any less remarkable. It’s a work of art! Oh and spot the eggs.

What happens next?

An egg is laid in each cell and these eventually hatch into grub-like larvae. At this point the queen must forage for insect prey to feed her young, which are dissected into small enough pieces for the larvae to eat. When the larvae have had their fill, they spin a silk cap over their cell and undergo the transformation into an adult wasp.

At this point the new worker wasps are all sterile females, who take on the jobs of foraging for food for the larvae and of expanding the nest as the colony grows. As the wasps become more numerous the queen relinquishes her other duties and focuses purely on egg-laying. Towards the end of summer she stops laying female worker eggs and starts laying ones that will hatch into new queens and male drones. She then stops laying eggs entirely. The new queens and males leave the nest to mate outwith the colony but come winter only the new queens are still alive, who then hibernate till the spring.

Why do they pester us?

It’s worth noting that adult wasps don’t eat insect prey, rather they are entirely dependent on sugar or nectar for their survival. And in a wonderful example of a mutually beneficial relationship, as the larvae break down their insect meals a sugary by-product is regurgitated and passed back to the adult wasps as nourishment. But at the end of summer when all the larvae have pupated and there is no more sugary solution being passed back, the doomed wasps have to leave the nest to find sugar for themselves. That’s when they descend upon our BBQs, beer gardens and especially our rubbish bins, at which point we flail about like runaway windmills in order to repel them.

This really isn’t the best strategy as wasps are very sensitive to movement, and flapping about only makes them feel threatened. When that happens they act aggressively and will sting, which in turn releases a pheromone to alert nearby wasps to join in. Keeping calm and reacting in a measured way is an infinitely better strategy, such as moving slowly or gently moving wasps away with some paper instead of furiously swatting at them…..but it goes against our better judgement when we’re so fearful of getting stung.

What is the point of wasps?

In their insatiable quest for meat for their larvae, wasps are estimated to consume around 14 million kg of insect prey across the UK every year. They undoubtedly contribute an enormous amount to agricultural pest control, thus reducing the need for harmful pesticides, and as they go about their business they pollinate both flowers and crops. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, the venom of some species of wasp is being researched because of its ability to kill cancer cells.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that wasps would need the mother of all advertising campaigns in order to change public opinion completely, but aside from the fact that they are interesting in their own right it’s still worth seeing past their sting to the positive role they unwittingly play in our lives.

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