Pic­nic ban­dits

Wasps . . . sum­mer pests out to ruin your day, or a much mis­un­der­stood friend of the en­vi­ron­ment? Matt Gaw over­comes his dread to get close to some fas­ci­nat­ing yel­low jack­ets at Lack­ford Lakes

EADT Suffolk - - Inside - Find out more about Lack­ford Lakes at www.suf­folk­wildlifetrust.org/lack­ford­lakes

Matt Gaw gets to know – and even ad­mire – wasps

PER­HAPS it’s their faces that cause the fear. Masked like Mex­i­can wrestlers, ban­dits with black eyes full of men­ace. Then again, maybe it’s their body mark­ings, the yel­low and black jack­ets, an an­cient bi­o­log­i­cal warn­ing of venom and pain hard­wired into hu­man DNA. Some­thing that screams, ‘Do not touch.’ ‘Run away’. What­ever the rea­son, I guess you could say I have just never re­ally got on with wasps.

But Hawk Honey, a vis­i­tor of­fi­cer at Lack­ford Lakes, and am­a­teur en­to­mol­o­gist, is con­fi­dent he can con­vert me, show me that wasps are crea­tures of won­der and beauty, cru­cial pol­li­na­tors and pest killers, rather than pic­nic-raid­ing men­aces.

I meet Hawk at the re­serve’s of­fice on a hot Sun­day af­ter­noon, to find him fill­ing his pock­ets with plas­tic spec­i­men pots and un­fold­ing a finely meshed net that he swishes around with a the­atri­cal flour­ish. He ex­plains there are some 7,000 wasp species in the UK alone, rang­ing from par­a­sitic wasps that are al­most mi­cro­scopic to two-inch long hor­nets. Just the name ‘hor­net’ is enough to make me shiver. I tell him about the time a hor­net was trapped in my garage, about how the glass had seemed to shake as it re­peat­edly body-slammed the win­dow.

“It had a head the size of a kit­ten,” I say. “I was too scared to go in there for a week.” He laughs as he leads me out onto the re­serve.

“Hor­nets are just lovely, and so docile. I’ve got a photo of a hor­net sit­ting on my hand clean­ing it­self. Peo­ple are only scared of them be­cause they don’t un­der­stand them.” I’m not en­tirely con­vinced. “But it would hurt though?” Hawk pauses. “Well, yes, but I be­lieve with a hor­net you can put it on your hand be­cause it knows that you know it can give you a punch.” Hor­nets, along with eight other species that are com­monly de­scribed as yel­low jack­ets or jaspers, are most likely to turn up at a pic­nic. Hawk ex­plains it is their com­plex eu­so­cial nests (the high­est level of so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion), that have brought them into con­flict with hu­mans.

“You see, the job of the work­ers is to go out there and get grubs and other in­sects and bring them back to the nest and feed the grubs, the new queens. When they give food to the grub, the grub gives them a sticky sweet sub­stance in re­turn. Then it comes to a time when the hive reaches the end. The queens have grown up and left, and all those work­ers have got no grubs to feed, yet they are still hooked on su­gar.” For a de­prived ad­dict, a wasp with the su­gar shakes, I can see how a pic­nic is an easy way to get a quick fix.

We cross onto one of the fields at the edge of the re­serve’s bound­ary. It’s rough, bro­ken ground, proper Breck­land. Scuffed and scraped by rab­bits, whose con­stant graz­ing ex­poses sand and poor soil, the field is dot­ted with tiny flow­ers and balls of crisp, grey rein­deer moss that re­sem­ble a cross be­tween bleached co­ral and tum­ble­weed. Last year, there was a colony of bee­wolf wasps here, a species that hunts hon­ey­bees, car­ry­ing them back to an un­der­ground cell to be sealed in with the fe­male’s egg.

He points out the tiny vol­cano mounds that in­di­cate the en­trance to a bur­row and lists the breath-tak­ing range of wasps that can be found on the re­serve. The spi­der hunt­ing wasps that can drag large prey over rough ground. The winged butcher Oxy­belus, which im­pales flies on its sting and car­ries them around like a grisly tro­phy. The del­i­cate-bod­ied Melli­nus ar­ven­sis, which stalks mam­mal drop­pings for flies, be­fore jump­ing on its prey. The gar­dener’s friend, Ar­gogo­rytes mys­taceus who will plunge her legs into the spit­tle of sap-suck­ing froghop­per nymphs, col­lect­ing as many as 300 for her lar­vae. The cuckoo wasps who

“Hor­nets are just lovely, and so docile. Peo­ple are only scared of them be­cause they don’t un­der­stand them.”

sneak eggs into bee nests. And of course the hor­net, the gen­tle, docile hor­net, who neatly snips off other wasps’ heads to feast on the juicy tho­rax. I can’t be­lieve the world I’ve been miss­ing out on, com­pelling, in­trigu­ing, a place where the com­plex­ity and bril­liance of evo­lu­tion is writ large.

There is beauty too among the sav­agery. Head­ing back to the cen­tre Hawk de­cides to check out the bug ho­tel, where he has pre­vi­ously found a rare ruby-tailed wasp, only the third recorded in Suf­folk.

“There!” He points to a log where an in­sect barely 10mm long is rest­ing. A jewel wasp, coloured like a star­burst of metal ore from black rock, it fizzes petrol-blue in the af­ter­noon light. I go closer, look­ing at the down­ward curve of the an­ten­nae, con­stantly scent­ing the sun-warmed wood.

“I wouldn’t mind one of those raid­ing my pic­nic,” I say. Hawk shoots me a look.

“I think that would be highly un­likely.”

A spi­der hunt­ing wasp with its paral­ysed prey.

Lack­ford Lakes vis­i­tor of­fi­cer Hawk Honey nets some wasps.

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