Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps
… and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.
Dylan Thomas (1952)
When I was three years old, I lived in a tiny, forgotten village in West Wales called Cribyn. It’s easily missed on the map. But at the time it was my whole world.
I remember the garden. A very damp garden. It was Wales. It may have been due to the dampness, or perhaps my father’s home brew that bubbled away on the patio, but the garden had a lot of slugs. To be honest, my memories of it are hazy but I remember the slugs because one day I ate one. My mother was horrified. After all, slugs, she told me, are revolting creatures.
People pour salt on slugs when they leave their silvery trails on patios or lettuces, without considering how nature needs them or what they do for us behind the scenes. People throw other kinds of chemicals at other bits of nature they don’t like. My toddler-self wondered why people didn’t just eat the bits of nature they wanted to get rid of.
This book is not about slugs. I don’t really have much time for slugs anymore. But maybe, deep down, the reason I am so fascinated with wasps is because of the slug, the one I ate in a lost village, in damp, beautiful Wales.
You see, people hate slugs, just as they hate spiders, worms, leeches, ticks. And wasps. Maybe my garden slug incident explains why I graduated so rapidly from an interest in slugs to birds, bypassing the other creepy-crawlies that the world had taught me not to like. This included wasps. I didn’t like wasps at all. When wasps came near, I flapped. I screamed. I swatted. I ran. Just like you, perhaps. Ever since you were three.
Then one day I found myself lying flat on the jungle floor of a Malaysian rainforest with a wasp nest dangling above my nose. For my PhD, I had painted each wasp with a few spots so that I could distinguish one from another. I’d been watching my painted insects for several weeks: I saw them being born, I saw them fight for a place in society, I saw some rise to motherhood and others submit to a life of hard labour. Then it was done: in my wonder at their doings, I fell in love with the least-loved, most enigmatic of insects – the wasp.
Twenty-five years later, I am still asking questions about wasps, but (lamentably) mostly from my office at University College London, rather than a tropical jungle. The deeper I wonder, the more questions (and wasps) I find: why are there so many species? Why are wasps so diverse in form and function? How are they able to manipulate other insects so effectively? Why have wasps evolved societies so complex that they make ours look like childhood role play? Why are we not better harnessing the services of wasps as vital predators of pests?
When I explain to strangers what I do for a living, they ask a different set of questions: why should we care about wasps? What do they do for us? Why do you study them? Why don’t you study something more useful … like bees? I explain that wasps are nature’s pest controllers, that they are probably more diverse even than beetles, that a world without wasps would be just as devastating as a world without bees, or beetles, or butterflies. My new friends shuffle with all the grace of a plastic bag at an organic food market. Yet on hearing the ‘bee’ word, they spot their chance of recovery and seize it to tell me how much they love bees. Safe territory. Wasps are forgotten, slipped into the recycling bin like unopened junk mail; my friends are relieved that the (wasp) conversation is over.
I can’t blame them. Bees are good, and cute and useful. We love them, and rightly so. However, there are a mere 22,000 species of bees and there are over 100,000 species of wasps. Still, it is almost impossible to walk into a bookshop these days and not bump into a beautiful book about bees. Written by journalist, science writer or academic, there is a bee book to set any flavour of consumer buzzing. These tomes bounce off the media storms that have been generated by a burgeoning body of new science on the importance of bees, the plight of bee populations and the catastrophic effects that their decline is likely to have on our health, food security and happiness. It is not surprising that readers have an insatiable appetite for books about these adorable, helpful organisms.
In stark contrast to bees, wasps are depicted as the gangsters of the insect world; winged thugs; inspiration for horror movies; the ‘sting’ in the tale of thriller novels; conduits of biblical punishment. Shakespeare, Pope Francis, Aristotle, even Darwin struggled to speak favourably of wasps, and questioned the purpose of their existence. Scientists have been victims of this culture too, shunning wasps as research subjects despite the endless forms of these creatures that remain to be studied. It seems the root of this hatred is the wasp’s sting,its eagerness to keep on stinging, and its apparent pointlessness in the natural world.
For most people, wasps are the yin (dark side) to the yang (sunny side) of the bee. This analogy from Chinese philosophy is appropriate on many levels: it describes our feelings about wasps (negative) and bees (positive). It articulates our perceptions of how useful wasps (not useful) and bees (very useful) are to us. It also describes the complementary roles in ecosystems of bees (as pollinators) and wasps (as predators). The importance of wasps as predators has gone largely unappreciated, and this is one of my reasons for writing this book. Wasps are important in ecological and economic terms; they have as many ‘sunny sides’ as bees do, with their fascinating social behaviour, their beauty and diversity, and their evolutionary importance as the ancestral root to all bees and ants.
Wasps hold hidden treasures of relevance to our own culture, survival, health and happiness. The ‘bee story’ was written by wasps before bees even evolved, and before wasps had shown humans how to make the paper on which the first bee book could be written. This book aims to balance the scales, to pull up a chair for wasps at the nature table of appreciation, and to transform the macabre repulsion that people have for wasps into the fascination and appreciation that wasps deserve.
If you love bees, this book may bring uncomfortable news: bees are simply wasps that have forgotten how to hunt. The ‘original bee’ was a solitary wasp who turned vegetarian, replacing the protein of meat with the protein of plants – pollen – and so kick-starting the bees’ long co-evolutionary relationship with plants. This evolutionary shift in diet was not the birth of ‘usefulness’, though: the ancestor of the ‘original bee’ had proved equally important in the environment as a master regulator of other insect and arthropod populations.
Wasps are also ancestors of ants: the first ant was a wasp that lost its wings. Today’s solitary hunting wasps provide us with glimpses of what the original bee and original ant would have been like. Wasps are a time machine, ready to reveal the evolutionary secrets of one of the most diverse animal groups and some of the most complex societies on earth. While there are at least 100,000 known species of wasps, there are probably several million undescribed species waiting in the taxonomists’ wings, and still their diversity has gone largely overlooked. The label of ‘wasp’ sits squarely under the shadow of the yellow-and-black-striped picnic-botherer of most people’s imagination. New data and techniques in molecular biology (genome sequencing) that permit fine-scale dissection of evolutionary relationships (phylogenies) have revolutionised species detection. It is becoming clear that wasps rival beetles not just in the number of species, but also in diversity of form and function. This science is making us think again about which of the insect groups really do run the planet.
My view of wasps was changed on that damp forest floor of a Malaysian jungle by the drama of their societies. Despite their little brains, wasps live out soap-opera-style existences that sweep our television equivalents into the wings. Divisions of labour, rebellions and policing, monarchies, leadership contests, ASBOs, negotiators, social parasites, undertakers … wasp societies have it all. These citadels are products of evolution, and understanding why and how they evolved has been the driving force of my personal journey into the enigmatic world of wasps. Wasp social behaviour is genuinely fascinating, perhaps because of the parallels they share with our own social lives.
The most widely recognised bee is the western honeybee – Apis mellifera. Thanks to a millennia-long, close cultural relationship between human and honeybee, we know a lot about the behaviour and life history of this species, and how to harness its ‘usefulness’ as pollinator and supplier of nutrition. By contrast, wasps have been scholastically neglected, and consequently our understanding of these remarkable creatures is lamentable. A good example is the honeybee of the wasp world – the yellowjacket wasp, Vespula vulgaris – which is simultaneously the most recognised wasp and the most despised insect across the globe. Over 150 years ago, Sir John Lubbock (1st Baron Avebury, and Charles Darwin’s neighbour) suggested that yellowjackets might be cleverer than honeybees. Astonishingly, we still know very little about the cognitive abilities of wasps but they are likely to be as impressive as those of bees, if not more so, as their prey is harder to catch. Insights into the remarkable social behaviours of the yellowjacket will surprise you.
Globally, bees are worth around $350 billion annually as crop pollinators. What’s the economic value of wasps? We don’t know. But we do know that wasps are voracious predators. They eat a wide range of insects (and a lot of them), many of which will be pest species in agricultural landscapes. Some wasps are already valued for this role, such as parasitoid wasps, which have been exploited as agents of biocontrol across the globe. You might even have bought some yourself, to rid your house of the dreaded clothes moth.
But the insects that most people identify as wasps – the hunting wasps, like the picnic-bothering yellowjacket Vespula – are not currently valued for their pest-controlling power. Scientists have not calculated how many tonnes of insect pests wasps remove from agricultural landscapes, nor the extent to which wasps may offer an economically viable alternative to chemicals as biocontrol agents. It is only now that we are beginning to appreciate the breadth of natural capital that is wrapped up in our planet’s biodiversity. Unwrap the wasps, and you may be amazed by their potential as biocontrol agents within a sustainable global agriculture that relies less on chemicals.
Some of evolution’s most mind-blowing stories are of wasps as pollinators. Take fig wasps, for example: without these minuscule insects there would be no figs (or figgy pudding!). Some orchids have evolved to mimic (chemically and physically) a rather sexy-looking female wasp. The orchid doesn’t just look like a sexy female, it smells like one. Male wasps swoon helplessly from one flower to another, casually spreading orchid pollen along with their own fair seeds. Other orchids release a floral smell, mimicking that of a plant being attacked by juicy caterpillars. Greedy yellowjacket wasps detect these cues and come flocking in hope of picking off a tasty protein punch, only to be disappointed and inadvertently smothered with pollen. Apart from these extraordinary tales, wasp pollination is a much neglected subject. And this is despite there being an entire subfamily of wasps that feed only on pollen. Even their name – ‘pollen wasps’ – has failed to divert the interests of pollination biologists from the bee, fly and butterfly mainstays.
At the pearly gates of invertebrate heaven, how might the good deeds of wasps stack up against those of bees, beetles, butterflies or even slugs? Wasps are exquisitely endless in form and function, and (probably) more species-rich than any other animal group. Their behaviours are secretive, surprising and mysterious; their societies are equally as wondrous as those of the much-loved honeybee. Wasps are stewards of our ecosystems as pest controllers, pollinators, seed-dispersers and guardians of micro-organisms. They may bring sumptuous feasts to our tables, could be measuring sticks of planetary health, and they are medicine cabinets waiting to be discovered.
My hope is that this book will unravel the mysteries of wasps; that it will challenge your perceptions of them; that it will give you reasons to value them; and that it will stir new heraldry for these undiscovered gems of nature. In 1952, the poet Dylan Thomas recounted, with the confusing simplicity of childhood, his memories of Christmases in Wales. Among pointless presents of perceived importance were ‘books that told me everything about the wasp, except why’.
This is the book that will tell you why wasps – the most enigmatic of insects – deserve a closer look.
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|Epub||August 5, 2022|
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