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
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.