As fall approaches we will see familiar insects begin to prepare for winter. Likely the most infamous will be the wasp in its many varieties. I think there are few among us that can’t recall the pain of being stung. Yet these insects do serve a vital purpose in balancing the environments that we live in.
Many wasps are social insects, living in large colonies within a nest. These nests can be almost anywhere above or below ground. We are most likely familiar with the yellow jacket nests that hang from eaves on buildings near areas we occupy. However, wasps can also live beneath the ground in old animal burrows, in tunnel-like areas, or within hollows of old trees. Nests that don’t interfere with our daily activities or pose a threat should remain undisturbed.
With the ripening of fruit and harvesting of the garden, we begin to see an increase in the number of wasps that seem to be literally everywhere. This cycle can be explained by the diet on which wasps survive. In the spring and most of the summer they feed on bugs such as flies, caterpillars and spiders. The food sources are plentiful and the wasp numbers are low. However, the nest is full of larva. As the nest matures the wasps continue to feed, but in larger numbers, with larva maturing and taking wing.
By fall after a season’s worth of feeding, wasps have fewer food options and therefore turn to eating apples and even garbage. The demand for food and its growing scarcity make the wasps more aggressive and we are more likely to be a part of that cycle. Most wasps do not survive the winter because their food sources aren’t available and they starve to death. Only the mated queens hibernate in cracks and crevices and emerge in the spring to start new colonies. Only a very few will survive this. Out of thousands of mated queens in the fall only a handful escape being eaten by spiders or dying during a warm winter that wakes them to find no food source.
So, we may ask ourselves, “Why not kill as many as possible for all the hassle they cause?” Wasps are incredibly beneficial in controlling insect populations. They also serve as pollinators to some degree in the early summer. By eliminating them we would surely face more infestations of spiders and ants in our gardens and homes. We would also deprive dragonflies and birds of this food source. They are disruptive on our warm autumn days, but eliminating them in large numbers would be more harmful to us and create an imbalance of which we can only guess the consequences. They are a nuisance for a few weeks but their role in the natural world cannot be replaced.