Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: it’s time to squash our stupidity around wasps

Social media is a dangerous place sometimes. People can end their careers at the click of a button. This blog may end my career as a bee-keeper, which hasn’t started yet.

Last week a video appeared in my Twitter timeline of a bee-keeper filming the swatting of a wasp. “Don’t tell Chris Packham” was the punchline (pun not intended). For any readers outside of the UK, Chris Packham is a wildlife conservationist with a large following and strong presence in the media. The video drew criticism from many established conservationists, Dave Goulson, for example, who has written several books about the importance of a wide range of insects, many of which are found in gardens.

The video was deleted and the bee-keeper evidently realised they had made a mistake and had something to learn (great stuff, now stop killing wasp queens please). But it was the kind of interesting insight that can only sometimes be provided by a mistake. Is the crushing of wasp queens (this person claimed to have killed more than 40) common practice? Is it encouraged by people within the industry, on the quiet? Judging from the bee-keepers I know, I would be absolutely astonished by that. What did astonish, however, was that this individual used to provide a monitoring service for the English government’s department for agriculture!

A German wasp harvesting woodshavings in my garden to build a nest somewhere

In keeping with that, a fellow bee-keeper pointed out that wasps remove a huge number of agricultural pests from the environment, which will ultimately benefit the farming of honey bees. Therefore killing wasp queens was harmful to far more than that squashed insect. Unfortunately this dim-wittedness is all too common in Britain, a micro-version of the continental European hunter’s desire to kill anything with a curved bill and talons, as I once heard someone say about the situation in eastern Europe.

It offers uncomfortable questions around industrial bee-keeping, which is a form of livestock farming, that may need to be fully addressed.

In much better news, there was a watershed moment for wasps in the media in the same week, however. Damian Carrington of The Guardian published this excellent article about the importance of wasps. It has some amazing science in it but also pointers to the economic importance of social wasps. This paragraph stood out:

Overcoming prejudice against wasps will not be easy, the scientists said, because they have long been portrayed as hateful. The ancient Greek polymath Aristotle wrote that โ€œhornets and wasps โ€ฆ have nothing divine about them as the bees haveโ€. In the Bible, God sends hornets as punishment to sinners in three different books.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/29/stinging-wasps-are-precious-not-pointless-say-scientists

Anyone who read this blog last year knows I have been trying to make this point in a more amateur way week after week. Wasps are not just one black-and-yellow species that annoys you at the picnic table every August. In the UK we have thousands of species, something you can’t say about most animals on these isles.

Take this solitary wasp, which I referenced in a previous post. iNaturalist reckons these are in the family Cheloninae, a group of ichneumon wasps. This wasp was absolutely tiny, with about 20 of them gathering on the edges of a shrub. They are one of several thousand species we have in the UK, with their value potentially not understood by science and certainly not economically. For 99.9% of the population that is the case due to their size and the fact that, you know, why would you look unless you blog about this stuff?

A median wasp pollinating raspberries in my garden last year

In recent weeks I’ve watched a wasp queen land in my basin pond to drink, sometimes several times a day from what I can see. She flies in and always picks the same spot. I love to see her. On a sweeter note, I watched another queen (or perhaps the same one?) visiting gooseberry flowers to nectar. In the late summer we’ll pick the fruit she helped to create, and wasps will be welcome here. This offer is unconditional, despite how annoying their workers will be in the summer to come.

Thanks for reading (and not squashing).

More macro

Macro Monday: the wasp that made Darwin doubt God

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Macro Monday 10th August 2020

Welcome to the weekly wasp.

A couple of years ago my friend recommended a book called The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. The book is a memoir about Heinrich’s relationship with his father, Gerd, an entomologist who collected ichneumon wasps but who was never fully accepted by the scientific or academic community. Bernd tells the story of his father’s escape from the Red Army in 1945 and how he buries his collection of ichenumonids so they aren’t destroyed. Gerd travelled around the world collecting specimens.

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In Britain we have poorer biodiversity than even our closest continental neighbours because of physical separation from the European landmass, intensifying land management practices, the impact of successive ice ages and, furthermore, the fact our climate is not tropical. But even then, we still have over 2000 species, which you can’t say for other fauna like birds or butterflies.

Reading The Snoring Bird consolidated a personal fascination with wasps, one which has not really travelled beyond blogposts, photos and seeking them out where I can. I’m not a collector of anything other than images.

Ichneumons have what we perceive as an unpleasant ecology. Females use their needle-like ovipositor to ‘inject’ their eggs into the burrows of insects, into crevices in wood or, most appallingly to our species, caterpillars or the larvae of bees. The eggs hatch inside the live caterpillar and eat it. It’s probably where the inspiration for the Alien films came from. To balance things out, insects inspired the creation of Pokemon.

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Last week I was sitting in my garden catching up with visiting family. I looked to my right at a pot of ornamental yarrow flowers (Achillea). I had noticed a bit of activity and glanced over to see a slender insect flying around the flowers. It was the equivalent of a video buffering over a poor quality internet connection. When it landed on one of the flowers I recognised it instantly as an ichneumon wasp. I ran inside to get my camera and managed to get some good photos: in focus, well lit and sharp enough.

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I have always wanted to see this species. Its scientific name is Gasteruption jaculator. To find it in my garden was a real surprise and one of the highlights of my time seeking wildlife.

Why might it have visited? We actively garden for wildlife, insects particularly, and there is a log store that this kind of species will seek out. A couple of months ago I saw a similar species hovering around the logs, but I couldn’t get my camera quick enough and it moved on.

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There are people whose first reaction to seeing this insect may be to kill it because of its ecology. That, to me, says everything about our misunderstanding of nature. A natural history lesson will tell us that without solitary wasps such as these we would have no social bees, a community of insects which prop up our dependencies on pollination of both crops and other flowering plants (including trees). Social bees evolved from solitaries wasps. The ichneumon’s ecological relationship with bees is one millions of years old, one small part of a web of life that has given human societies licence to develop through an abundance of food.

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However, this is an insect which has affected the way some of the science’s key thinkers have framed their own mortality. Darwin doubted that any benevolent God could have created animals which behaved in this way. Not sure about you, but I often think that about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

A few years ago I encountered a cousin of the ichneumon that visited me in my garden. It has a far shorter ovipositor and its scientific name is Gasteruption assectator. I was walking on the North Downs when I found the insect nectaring on hogweed flowers. A woman passed me and asked what I had found. I said I’d found the insect that made Darwin doubt God. She looked away with a knowing smile:

โ€˜I remember reading about them,’ she said.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

Recent photos taken with Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm F2.8 macro lens, Nikon SB700 flash and Raynox 250 adaptor.