Yes, I know they have every right to life, but why don’t they just buzz off somewhere else? Every time I sit outside to admire the view with a coffee or a cup of tea, it seems like all the wasps from the neighbourhood decide it is time they shared my company. Buzzing around my space, even squeezing through a gap in the window or door if I give up and go inside to get away from them. Having been stung by these stripey-vested critters in the past, I am keen to avoid it again – my house had a big metal gate, and some wasps had made a nest in a small hole in the gate frame, and every time I slammed the gate shut a whole angry gang swarmed out looking for the culprit who dared to upset them.
I found out some interesting stuff. Called Vespae here, they are all over the place normally, getting on with their little waspy lives, and in fact are nature’s own pest controllers and not normally interested in us - they are busy chopping up caterpillars, aphids and even spiders, which they take back to the colony to feed the larvae of the queen.
Because of a gender quirk, these are sterile female wasps, and their only job is to collect food for the young. Weirdly, they can have a virgin birth of male eggs, but the queen will likely eat these eggs and attack the egg-layer as well. The workers only eat sugars they find in flower nectar and honeydew produced by aphids, but the wasp larvae will give the worker a carbo-rich sugary secretion in return for food, and like a drug addict, the workers will be driven to help feed the several thousand young in the colony.
By the end of the summer, the colony could have grown to up to 10,000 with the larvae fully fed and some now becoming adult wasps themselves, and a slight change occurs – fewer larvae are producing the sweet secretion for the workers, and these workers are then forced to look for their sugar-fix elsewhere, and this is where they start pestering us as their behaviour changes to dining out at our expense instead. The queen has laid the last of her eggs, and these will turn into fertile male and female wasps which will form their own colonies next year.
Interestingly, the female is the only one who will sting, and her stinger is a modified egg laying device called an ‘ovipositor’, which males do not have.
I know there is a lot of fear about the Asian Wasp working its way across Europe, but I am not finding out too much about other wasps in Portugal. There are hundreds of species worldwide, with probably the most common here being the German Yellow-Jackets, Vespula germanica, or Common Wasp, with a distinctive yellow-banded body, and the European Paper Wasps, Polistes dominula, longer in the body with a very skinny waist and long ‘dangly’ legs.
Paper Wasps are the ones I see most, and they will build a nest just about anywhere – under the eaves of terraces, underneath chairs or even inside a closed parasol, and a mature nest will have open ‘chambers’ for about 200 larvae, the whole nest hanging by one single papery thread called a ‘petiole’.
Yellow Jackets tend to live underground in burrows, or inside walls, crevices and the bases of trees, with nests the size of a basketball by the end of summer and should be professionally removed if they become a nuisance. They can be aggressive too, pursuing anything they perceive as a threat, and can actually bite to get a better grip on their prey before using their stinger, and can sting repeatedly, so anyone who has allergies to stings should take heed.
Personally, I don’t think they are any worse this year than any other year, I believe it’s just because we are at home more because of Covid-19, and perhaps we are noticing them more!