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Myths and Facts About Wasps

Summer is here! The insects are out, the weather is fantastic, and I’m starting to roll out Professor Bugman STEM Summer Events, The PBSSE….uhhh, I’ll keep working on that. Of course, with summer comes a very touchy subject, one of peoples’ least favorite insects:

WASPS!

This word might conjure up terrifying imagery of furious buzzing black-and-yellow creatures hunting you down, but this isn’t what entomologists are referring to when we use the word. To put it simply, “wasp” is a broad term used for a large number of species in the order Hymenoptera (him-en-op-tera) with a narrow waist.

It almost goes without saying that there’s a LOT of misinformation regarding one of the most successful groups of pollinators to ever live, and I wouldn’t be able to make weird faces at myself in the mirror properly if I didn’t take some time during my favorite time of year to bust some myths and drop some facts about my favorite group of insects. You can’t stop me, I’ve already posted this blog. The female wasps have a special egg-laying organ called an ovipositor, which they use to lay their eggs in special places. This group technically branched off into the bees and ants, however they’re not typically referred to as “wasps” unless you talk to an opinionated entomologist.


It’s me. I’m the opinionated entomologist.


And I’m gonna blow your mind with more knowledge.

Wasp Myths

“Wasps are all evil and hate us”

  • Wasps have behavior and emotions that are not communicated in a way we immediately notice or understand.


“Wasps will attack you around food”

  • Stinging wasps may be somewhat more territorial around valuable resources, however they are no strangers to competition, and will abandon food or can be shooed away, especially if they’re caught while scouting. If you’re brave, there’s plenty of photos out there of people cupping sugary liquid treats in their palm as a small swarm of hornets drinks from it.


“They sting for no reason”

  • While they are known to readily face threats, they typically won't attack without a reason. It’s not worth the loss of life and resources on their part to fight without a cause.

  • That being said, they will absolutely sting if they feel it’s necessary. Which is, again, not “all the time” as this myth will have you believe. Just because we don’t always know why wasps attack doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason! Many species, like hornets, yellow jackets, and some ants will more readily sting because they can do so without dying, unlike honeybees who have to make the ultimate sacrifice to use their not-so-secret weapon.


So in that case….

What causes a Wasp to Sting?

  • Disturbing/damaging their nest

    • While it may seem obvious to us what is or isn't harming a home, we don't know what delicate structures are inside theirs and what kind of movement will or will not disrupt them. They also live in a kill-or-be-killed world where taking the moment to figure out the intentions of a potential attacker could mean the difference between survival and devastation. Even subtle shakes, vibrations, and minor noise may be all the warning they have from natural enemies, and they have evolved to act on these right away.

  • Injuring them

    • Killing or harming a wasp can trigger attacks. When they sense danger, they can release an alarm pheromone which calls in their sisters to help, like we make sounds of pain when hurt or afraid. Many can even sound the alarms after death!

  • Touching/squeezing them

    • If you had a venomous sword and a gigantic, city-crushing monster placed its enormous hand onto you, you’d probably give it quite the poke without much thought! Stinging wasps feel the same way about you. Stings often happen when a wasp becomes trapped between our skin and something else, whether it’s a part of our body, a chair, or even the clothes on our back. If it puts pressure on their bodies, they’ll defend themselves from the behemoth titans they live with. Can you really blame them?

  • Breathing on them

    • Wasps are sensitive, and can tell when air isn’t just an ordinary breeze. Some even have a reflex to sting when breathed on as a last-second defense against surprise attacks from predators. Blowing them away is not recommended.


“Stay still and they won’t sting you!”

  • While holding still might prevent some of the situations listed above, it’s not guaranteed to avoid trouble entirely. Wasps are surprisingly good at recognizing potential targets using many of their senses, so if you’ve already aroused their anger, they won’t be fooled or soothed when you make like a statue. If you haven’t started trouble, just walk away if you feel unsure. If you’re not allergic, you may be able to ignore the occasional scout or worker, as they don’t really have any interest in attacking you without provocation, especially if they’re busy with their usual chores.


“Stinging wasps have no fear!”

  • While they are well-armed and they know it, generally speaking stinging wasps don’t want to fight, and will avoid conflict if they’re away from home. It still hurts the colony to lose workers, even if they’ve got numbers on their side! They can sometimes be shooed away like flies if they’re simply scouting around (just be sure not to hit them!) They’re still insects, after all.







Cool Facts about Wasps

  • What most people think of when they hear “wasp” is the group Vespidae (vess-pid-ay), which includes the yellow jackets, hornets, mud wasps, paper wasps, and many others. This group includes about 5,000 species, which may seem like a lot, but only accounts for less than 5% of their order.

  • Wasps are one of the most diverse groups of animal life known to science, and are a personal favorite! This diversity powerhouse accounts for most of the 130,000+ known species of the order Hymenoptera, which is roughly 7.5% of all known species of animals. Some entomologists even believe that nearly every one of the almost 1 million insect species out there may have its own species of parasitic wasps.

“...Parasitic?” I hear you say.

  • Most wasps are parasitoids! This is a fancy way of saying they’re parasites for part of their lives, typically the larval stage, while living free another part, typically their adult phase. Fear not, for few, if any, wasps are known to parasitize humans. They mostly prey on other insects and plants. If you ever join one of my Insect Safaris during the summer, you’ll be sure to hear me get real giddy when finding a tiny little parasitoid wasp in our nets!

  • The stinger is a specially modified ovipositor(oh-vih-poz-it-or), or egg-laying organ, which evolved into a powerful weapon in the group Aculeata (Ay-cyool-ee-ay-tah, a.k.a. The stinging wasps.) Modern stinging wasps inject a potent venom to cause pain and discomfort for their targets. However, this is thought to have evolved from different chemicals meant kill or paralyze their ancestors’ hosts. A great example of this kind of venom is the tarantula hawk wasp. This wasp attacks and stings desert tarantulas, paralyzing them for the rest of their (short) lives. Once the spider is immobilized, the mother then drags it into her nest, where her babies can safely eat their large, hairy host until they’re grown and ready to leave as adult wasps.

  • Some of the largest and smallest insects ever discovered are Wasps. The smallest among these are less than half a millimeter in length, and little more than that in wingspan. Many of the specks of dust you might see floating in the air outside may actually be tiny parasitic wasps, gently swimming through the air looking for a host to lay eggs in! On the other end, you can find the now-famous Asian Giant Hornet, which can get to nearly two inches in length and more than an ounce or 29 grams in weight.

  • Most, if not all worker wasps, including bees and ants, are girls! This way, workers are often also armed with their stingers. Sorry fellas, boys just don’t have the equipment it takes to succeed in the Wasp Workforce!






“Wasps” aren’t just the mindless, hateful stinging machines people make them out to be. They come in all shapes and sizes, most are not only harmless, but super interesting and cool! I hope you learned a bit about how to coexist and stay safe around these amazing insects this summer, and learned a new appreciation for them. If you find a cool one, take a picture and send it in and I’ll feature it right here!


Stay safe out there!

-Professor Bugman

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