Wasps should be prized, not despised, say Norwich scientists

Heath potter wasp

A heath potter wasp (Eumenes coarctatus), delivers a caterpillar to her nesting pot. Credit: John Walters. - Credit: John Walters

They might have ruined a fair few picnics and disrupted enjoyment of pints in pub beer gardens, but wasps deserve far more credit, say Norwich scientists.

Whereas bees are prized for their roles as pollinators, University of East Anglia researchers say the reputation of wasps as pointless, but irritating, insects is far from fair.

They say wasps are crucial predators, pollinators, and may even be of use in treating cancer. 

A study, published in the journal Biological Reviews, compiles evidence from over 500 academic papers to review how some 33,000 species of stinging wasps contribute to ecosystems, and how this can help the economy, human health, and society.

Ryan Brock

Ryan Brock, from the University of East Anglia. - Credit: Ryan Brock

Ryan Brock, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Alongside other insects, many wasp species are declining from factors such as climate change and habitat loss.

"As such, there is urgent need to address their conservation and ensure that habitats continue to benefit from the far-reaching ecosystem services that wasps provide.”

A Polistes paper wasp colony

A Polistes paper wasp colony. Credit: Dr Patrick Kennedy, University of Bristol - Credit: Dr Patrick Kennedy, University of Bristol

Lead author Prof Seirian Sumner, from UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, said: “Wasps are one of those insects we love to hate – and yet bees, which also sting, are prized for pollinating our crops and making honey.

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“Wasps are understudied relative to other insects like bees, so we are only now starting to properly understand the value and importance of their ecosystem services.

"We have reviewed the best evidence there is, and found that wasps could be just as valuable as other beloved insects like bees, if only we gave them more of a chance.”

Wasps are top predators of other insects - playing a crucial role in stopping aphids and caterpillars from damaging crops.

A social paper wasp

A social paper wasp (Polistes satan). Credit: Professor Seirian Sumner, UCL - Credit: Professor Seirian Sumner, UCL

Researchers say they could be used as sustainable forms of pest control in developing countries, where farmers could bring in populations of a local wasp species with minimal risk to the natural environment.

And, with pollination by insects vital for agriculture, researchers found wasps visited 960 plant species, including 164 completely dependent on wasps.

The review also said wasp venom and saliva has antibiotic properties, while yellowjacket wasp venom has shown promise in treating cancer.