Summer treasure 10: Wasps’ nests

cedar wasp nest9/9/2018 The discovery of an exquisitely beautiful wasps’ nest hanging in a cedar tree in my garden yesterday prompted me to think again about these much detested creatures. I wouldn’t exactly put wasps at the top of my list of favourite animals, and I admit they make a nuisance of themselves towards the end of summer when, unemployed and in a drunken stupor, they wander about looking for sugar. But I become extremely angry when I see people killing them.

I have lost count of the times when, forbidding a visitor to kill a wasp in my garden, I have been asked, ‘but what is the point of them?’ To my shame, the only answer I have been able to give is, ‘if wasps disappeared from the planet tomorrow, you’d know about it. And not in a good way’. The truth is, though I was certain wasps did have a point, I was only guessing at their ecological importance. I believe there is no creature on the planet that has no purpose; it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t. Certainly no insect, anyway. I am not always so sure about humans – except perhaps as the only creature capable of appreciating the miracle that is our planet. We have a funny way of expressing it though, so intent do we seem on destroying our only home…

It is time to extol the virtues of these poor creatures, beyond that of providing a free cleaning service for my fences and garden furniture. My love for hornets is greater than for wasps – they are, after all, regal in their size and colour, and don’t bother humans even in late summer – but I feel more urgency in expressing my support for wasps.

cedar wasp nest 2Their main ecological importance, I read, is in controlling other insect populations – to the extent that some farmers apparently use them for pest control – and in pollinating plants. That is the practical answer. But there are so many other awe-inspiring aspects to these insects that have little to do with their ecological role.

I had absolutely no idea that there are more than 9000 species of wasp in the UK. That in itself is enough to leave me open-mouthed. The social wasp species that we are familiar with make up only a tiny fraction of that wasp diversity. Then, I read, male wasps develop from unfertilised eggs.1 How is that even possible? I know it is possible, as are many other miraculous feats of nature (immortal jelly fish, for example), but it is mind-boggling nevertheless.

My greatest appreciation for wasps, however, is an aesthetic one. They themselves are beautiful, if one can free oneself of prejudice; but their nests are a marvel, a work of art. I have lived most of my life with hornets’ and wasps’ nests visible on the inside of my house, where they have turned the interior attic walls – made of something akin to reconstituted cardboard – into papier-mâché nests. I have far greater appreciation of these 1960s walls in their reformed state, and inadvertently leaving space for hornets’ nests is probably the only thing that forgives the lack of wall insulation.

Wasp nestWhen my bedroom walls were taken down in June, another nest – perhaps a wasps’ this time – was discovered between the dormer window and the thatched roof. It has been sitting on my kitchen dresser for two months while I figure out how best to preserve it and display it – it crumbles at the slightest provocation, so I’d better make a decision quickly. Wasp nest detailIn the meantime I have been staring at the perfectly hexagonal cells, and the exterior of the nest, wondering how on earth any creature could build something so perfect, so astonishing.

As for the ‘living’ nest in the cedar tree, I have never seen one out in the open before, and how it could survive a downpour is a mystery to me. The colours and stripes on the exterior of the nest are still subtle, but far more vivid than the old nests. I defy even the greatest wasp hater to tell me this is not a work of beauty.