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Whey do we need Wasps?

After practicing in Indiana for about twenty-five years - ouch - my husband and I relocated to the Lexington area, which is only a three hour drive and because my clients in Indiana are so near and dear to me, I never imagined not caring for them, so I've continued to make the drive back for annual visits, which I adore. Now that I am putting roots down in Lexington though, I am starting to open myself up to practicing here. I imagine some land with a cute little home, a huge garden full of veggies, flowers, and herbs. We also want lamb, maybe a goat or two, a bunch of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and of course, two donkeys. We are still playing with names. Jack and Jill? Jack and Jenny? Laverne and Shirley? Yankee and Doodle?


I also imagine a small clinic on this property where I can see clients, building my herbal apothecary, and an area to teach yoga. Of course this requires a lake to allow for paddle-board yoga, but also space to create a mandala to walk for meditation or woods for hikes. We could do yoga around the fire, near the lake, or on the veranda with the wind blowing gently, cooling us from the heat built from our vinyasa. I imagine gatherings of women supporting each other, relaxing and restoring ourselves. I also imagine teaching kids about nature, botanical medicine, even crafting and foraging. So this week, when I met with new Lexington clients, I asked on of the young gals if she had any questions of me before I left, and she said, "I don't understand why there are wasps."


Well, I responded to her that I imagine there are two or three plants that only the wasp can pollinate, and she thought strongly that those plants probably aren't really that important, that we could just eliminate them too. I asked her, "what if they hold important healing properties?" We decided we would research about wasps and their purpose before we meet again, so because I hope to pass a love of nature on to each of you, I thought I'd share my discovers here with you too.



I am sure like many of you, this young gal associates wasp with the pain of the sting. We equate them with belligerent social hornets, yellow-jackets, and paper wasps. We have also been conditioned by our friends, family, pest control companies, and the media to fear and despise them. In reality though, the vast majority are super solitary, are super small and either can't sting, or loathe to do so in self-defense. Wasps are perhaps the most diverse of all organisms, especially if you include other members of their family, like the bees (hairy wasps) and ants (wingless wasps).


Think of wasps as the ancestors of bees, so bees are wasps that have forgotten how to hunt. There are about 100,000 known wasp species, but 70,000 are parasitic, which are stingless and quite well studied. They are already being used in farming to control pests without using #insecticides. Then there are about 22,000 species of bees.


They are intimidating for sure. They are the top predator in the insect world. Interestingly, they are so successful at advertising their venomous nature that many other insects mimic them, so what you think you are avoiding in fear of it being a stinging wasp may be entirely harmless. The other rather big misconception I had, was that the spear sticking from their behind is not actually their stinger, but rather, the female's egg-laying organ called the ovipositor. These are never stuck into a human. The sting is actually retracted into their abdomen until they have to deploy it.


Wasps need #carbohydrates because they are quite energetic and build nests often which means they are always on the hunt for nectar from flowers. They will also consume fermenting sap from wounded trees, and the sugary waste of aphids and related insects. In urban areas, they are attracted to the sweet aromas of our barbecues and soda pops. Yellow-jackets will even steal meat to take back to their nest.


If you are highly #allergic, avoid taking sweets outside and be cautious about where you put your hands, such as in crevices or cracks. I leaned against a swing set once and a bee was already there, so stung me in defense. Mark their nests so you are mindful, and at the end of the season, rid your area of this nest so other insects that may also sting don't flip it for their own home.


Looks Like I Was Right!


While we may experience personal conflicts with wasps, we would not do well without #wasps in our kingdom. They are pollinators and non-toxic agents of pest control. As predators, they eat pests in your garden! The greenfly is consumed by wasps, as are many caterpillars, some which eat your veggies. The fall army worm that attacks maize crops in Brazil and the borer mother that eats sugarcane are all controlled by wasp consumption. In the UK, it is thought that wasps consume about 14 million kilograms of insects in just one summer. A world without wasps would be a world with a much larger population of bugs eating up our crops and gardens.


As important is their role as predators in our ecology, they are also increasingly recognized for their pollinating contribution, transferring #pollen from flower to flower. It is actually their thirst for sweet liquids that helps to explain why they are so bothersome. In spring, they start to build their nests and create babies, or larvae, and all summer they have to feed the larvae so they are on the hunt looking for other critters. Interestingly though, they offer the larvae protein, but the larvae produce a sweet nectar that the adult wasps suckle on so when they stop producing larvae towards the end of the summer, they go in search of sugar-rich foods, which is often our own barbecues, picnic desserts, and beer. Yellowjackets in particular scavenge for dead insects to feed their offspring, so they prevent the piling up of dead bodies - like a cleaning service.


Wasps and hornets also carry yeast cells in their gut, an essential ingredient for making beer, wine, and bread, which is no wonder if they love sugar so much, right? They eat late seasons grapes growing wild in nature, and this so this yeast survives all winter in the tummies of hibernating queen wasps and is then passed on to their offspring when they regurgitate food for their young next spring. These little ones will then carry the yeast back to the next season of grapes. This process has even found researchers to identify another source of antibiotics within the sting of the wasp.


As far as my first guess though, that they may pollinate two or three plants that no other creature could accomplish, I discovered that their are at least 960 plant species that the wasp does pollinate, and 164 of those are completely dependent on them for #pollination. I completely underestimated the wasp. These include the orchids whose flowers attract the male wasp by mimicking the back end of a female wasp.


Wasps have even inspired improvements in the manufacturing of paper due to their marvelous nests made of a kind of paper-mache, and their venom shows promise in creating new medicines. We research their biomimicry, ethology, and chemical ecology. Japan, India, and Venezuela eat wasps, particularly the larvae. All wasp species have value, although this may not be super obvious. Some though, may be too predatory in that some areas of the world do actually have to act on over population because they will become predatory towards the honeybee, rob their hives of honey, and consume more than half of the available honeydew.


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