British Wasps – The Wasps Of The British Isles
How Do Wasps Defend The Nest?
British wasps defend their nests aggressively if threatened or attacked. Other members of the order Hymenoptera such as Honey Bees and Red Ants will do the same.
When social wasps sting you, they release a pheromone or chemical that quite literally marks you as the threat. Pheromones alert other cast members within the colony that the nest is being threatened and more wasps join the attack.
What Is A Primed Wasp Nest?
A Primed Nest – a wasps nest that has already been disturbed, e.g. by a football being kicked near it, is extremely dangerous! Wasps from the initial sortie, happy that the threat is gone, will often rest on the outer surface of the nest.
If the nest is then subsequently disturbed, the resultant response from the nest will often be significant and very, very fast.
What Is A Wasps Sting?
The Wasps Sting or Wasp Stinger as it is also called is an incredible piece of kit. It is designed to work a little like a sawing knife that actively punctures and lacerates the skin. This injection delivers its venom deep into the dermis (deepest layer of skin).
The wasp’s sting is not barbed like that of the honey bee, which uses its sting purely as a defence. A wasps sting is used for subduing prey, to be returned to the nest for consumption by the wasps’ hungry grubs.
This is why the wasp can and often will sting you multiple times without any trauma to itself (unless you squash it!).
Why Do Wasps Get Aggressive?
Temperament varies in both wasps and the nests they come from, which means that the response from a nest to a given threat will vary depending on a number of key factors.
You can, for instance, have two nests of the same species of wasp, in different locations, and one will respond very aggressively whilst the other will barely register your presence.
Factors that may serve to influence the wasps’ response include – temperature, nest size and nest maturity.
Nest Maturity and Aggression
It’s well, established, through our own observations that British wasps nests tend to become more of a risk as it matures and the number of workers begin to outnumber the larvae.
This causes a shortage of the sweet sticky treat the larvae can provide the hungry worker wasps and the colony becomes a dangerous place to be.
These high-risk wasp nests appear to be the most unpleasant to try and treat, as being swarmed by nests going through this cycle of maturity is increasingly common as we move into late summer
Temperature and Aggression
Temperature also plays its part, and we find that activity becomes frenzied as the temperature climbs into the high twenties and beyond.
This factor makes early morning and late evening the safest times to manage the control of large or high-risk nests on footpaths or in busy urban areas.
British wasps don’t tend to suffer from this very much as our summers are quite unpredictable. So activity can fluctuate wildly from one day to the next.
Nest Disturbance and Aggression
The linear flight path of wasps means that they fly in a straight line, too and from the nest. When foraging for food, the flight behaviour changes to non-linear.
It has been observed that when a wasp has fed or acquired building material for the nest, it launches into the air. The insect then climbs vertically in a spiral to re-orientate itself. This seemingly ensures it knows its way back to the nest.
Breaking the invisible linear flight path, too and from the nest, immediately makes you a threat and a target. If you watch wasps leaving a nest they are very much on a mission and they will head out in different directions.
As you get closer to the nest you begin to interrupt this flight pattern. If you get too close, you will inevitably get stung or even swarmed.
What Should You Do When Wasps Attack?
The trick with wasps is not to panic. Wasps are equipped with compound eyes very sensitive to movement. The more you wave your arms and move your body, the bigger the visual signature and thus threat you will become.
The best thing is to back away slowly in a straight line as this creates the lowest visual movement signature.
Running like hell in a straight line also works. It’s unlikely that they will be able to catch an adult with good mobility running at full tilt. When you run in a zigzag, you simply cut down the distance covered so it makes you slower.
It has been said that British wasps in the can fly at 14 mph and most people can outperform this speed when their natural fight or flight reactions kick in. This might be rather inaccurate though, as 20 mph or more is likely, especially in hot weather!
What Happens When Wasps Attack You?
When stung by a wasp, the wasp does not just inject venom it also releases a chemical that effectively marks you as the threat, allowing other wasps to attack with greater effect.
The closer you are to the nest when this happens, the greater the chances are that other wasps in the colony will be alerted to the perceived threat you represent.
Other factors that may influence the number of times you get stung might include, wind strength, the size of the nest entrance and the nests proximity to it, temperature and time of day.
Wasps fix themselves onto the victim, clasping the skin etc with sharp spurs on the feet and rotate the abdomen, delivering multiple stings in a circular motion.
They often attack directly towards the face although the median wasp will often fly above the threat and dive down onto the victim, delivering a single sting that punctures deep into the skin where they deliver the venom.
Remember the sting of the wasp is defensive and functional for subduing prey the honey bee, on the other hand, uses its sting only for defence so has a barb on the sting to keep in place.
Sometimes if you leave a bee in place (although the usual reaction is to whack it!) it can sometimes wriggle the sting free and fly of uninjured.
A wasp, on the other hand, can sting as often as it likes as the sting is nothing less than a very effective hypodermic needle. None of our native British wasps have barbed stings.
Wasp Nest Disposal – Is It Worth It?
Wasp nest disposal is rarely worth the effort. The nests once dormant have low humidity and are essentially just paper.
Removal of the wasp nest will not prevent future queens nesting in the same area or cavity and if pesticides have been used on the nest then you may contaminate other areas for no particular benefit.
The dust based pesticides used are often residual in activity and remain active for years and this might knock down a queen wasp looking to nest near the treated wasps nest.
Wasps are found worldwide and scientifically classified as:
Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Arthrop
Order – Hymenoptera
Suborder – Apocrita
Infraorder – Aculeata (stinging wasps)
Family – Vespidae
Genus – Vespa, Vespula & Dolichovespula
Species – e.g. Vespa Crabro
Social Wasps are described as eusocial, so what does this mean?
As illustrated in the paragraph above, the wasps we are about to consider belong to the family Vespidae and are what we called eusocial. This means that these wasps have the highest order of vertebrate cooperation, identified by the presence of three key features.
- Reproductive division of labour (with or without sterile castes)
- Overlapping generations
- Cooperative care of young
Social Wasps and The Colony or Wasp Nest
The History Of Wasps
Hymenopteran insects, e.g. ants, bees, and wasps, are said to have first appeared in the Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago.
A large number of Hymenoptera are extremely social insects, For example, honey bees, ants and social species of wasps have developed regimented social systems in which members are divided into a worker, drone, and queen castes. This is referred to as eusocial.
The first reported account of a Wasp and for that matter, anaphylactic shock was described historically by the Egyptians who tell of a monarch who died from a wasp or Hornet sting in 2621 BC.
The ruler in question was King Menes who reportedly spent his sixty years or so, establishing and developing the Egyptian civilization. It is said that he was killed by a “Kheb”. This word when translated from Egyptian means Wasp or Hornet.
Wasps are called many things during the summer months that would probably be seen as unhelpful here and a little rude.
Colloquially though British wasps have been known as jaspers in the southern half of England, although it is not clear whether this refers to the Latin name Vespa or the striped abdomen, which echoes the striped mineral jasper.
Across the water in the states, they are commonly called yellow jackets and in other countries around the world, they are likely to have their own slant on what to call them.
Wasp Behavior and Factual Information
The family Vespidae is a considerable and diverse group, made up of over 6000 species that are found throughout the world with more species being discovered on a regular basis.
The social wasps within this family live cooperatively in a nest that is referred to as a colony. This colony will be made up of females the Queen and her female workers or daughters.
All British wasps are all clearly identifiable by their black and yellow/orange warning decoration. A wasps decoration is designed to help predators learn quickly that these insects are not as tasty as they might seem!
Some animals have not been so easily persuaded. Badgers, in particular, do not seem to care and enjoy the opportunity of the tasty treat that the freshly excavated nest represents in terms of wasp grubs.
How Does a Wasp Nest Start?
Most British social wasp colonies begin in the spring when the hibernating queen is triggered to emerge by the warmth of the first mild days of spring.
At this time of year the newly emerged queen is at great risk as she lacks a nest to protect her from late frosts and until she has fully recovered from her long sleep is lethargic and unable to fiercely defend herself. She will also be one of the few large insects around in early spring so is an obvious target for predators such as birds.
Ants are also predators of wasps and given the opportunity will attack them. Wasps, however, secrete a substance around the petiole or (the stalk that attaches the initial structure of the nest to whatever is supporting it) of the nest that acts as a repellent, preventing ants from taking advantage.
Before the queen can begin laying eggs she first needs to regain her strength and ensure she gets the nutrition required to allow her egg-laying organs to mature. She normally does this by aiding early pollination of plants as she consumes carbohydrate-rich nectar and sap.
Why Do Wasps Choose a Nest Site?
It is believed but not proven that wasps will return to the site of an old nest by the presence of a pheromone which is a bit like a form of chemical signature left by the structure or biochemical footprint of an old nest.
It is generally accepted that wasps don’t use nests abandoned by previous colonies, with the exception of the Hornet (Vespa crabro) where verbal claims have been made that they will use an old nest, although the author has not seen written evidence of this.
What has been seen (in numerous loft spaces) is that wasps of a particular species do seem to nest in the same space year after year.
Sometimes there will be a gap of some years, yet it is not uncommon to see clusters of nests that have the same characteristics of size and colour in loft spaces suggesting that the same species has nested in the same loft on subsequent occasions.
Sometimes a new species will nest where other species have and at the same time, seemingly without upsetting one another, although they usually use different entry/exit points.
Where Do Wasps Nest?
Depending on the preference of the queen, which may vary from one species to another in respect of most popular locations, a nesting site may be established in all manner of places.
Some are subterranean (below ground) in disused rodent burrows or in naturally occurring hollows in trees or tree root systems. Others will nest in terrestrial nests (above ground) in structures such as houses, outbuildings, bird boxes and compost bins.
Finally, we have aerial nesters or those that prefer to nest in trees and shrubs or on the sides of structures – from guttering etc.
Aerial and subterranean nests are often the most dangerous, and this is because unsupervised pets and children only discover their presence once they are literally on top of, or next to the nest.
When wasps are nesting in a confined or restricted space they will often what they can to enlarge it. Honey bees differ in this respect as they will simply try to find a better place to nest, but the wasp can ill afford this luxury and will simply excavate whatever is in the way.
Can Wasps Eat Through Walls and Ceilings?
If the nest is resting against a ceiling or wall that is constructed of plasterboard, the wasps will simply eat through it.
Often the sound they make as they excavate the wall will keep the occupants of the room awake. This can be just before they penetrate the surface and flood into the room below!
You can sometimes see a very faint brown stain, letting you know in most cases that all that separates you from them is a layer of paint.
Another reason for nesting in a particular place is believed to be linked with the odour produced by different species of structural timbers e.g. Cedar and Oak.
It is thought that these timbers contain scents that act as a natural attractant to the queen just as it is believed that the workers collect nest building material from particular types of timber with different scents and properties which give each species of wasp a nest with distinctive colour, texture and shape.
Wasp nests simply made from whatever material is most abundant and this is invariably chewed up (masticated) timber, mixed with water and saliva to form wood pulp, essentially paper.
This is why social wasps are often referred to as the paper wasps. This material is very easy to collect and use and once dry is very, very resilient to prevailing climatic conditions.
A nest in a tree can remain in place for some years before finally disintegrating and in lofts, this process can take decades.
Non-Timber Wasp Nest Materials
Many nests are located in areas that take advantage of non-natural materials that would appear to offer strategic advantages in terms of shelter or strength. Whether this is by chance or by design remains the secret of the queen wasp.
In some species, workers are not always so fussy with materials. It’s commonly seen that the nest of the median wasp will have blue or green streaks on its wall. This can be traced to the protective plastic material that covers the springs on children’s outdoor trampolines.
Another common material is loft insulation. Some types of loft insulation lend themselves very nicely to wasp nest formation and provide the wasp nest with a degree of camouflage.
Wasp Nest Construction and Formation
The queen wasp will begin building her nest by first establishing a petiole or short supporting spindle on which to mount the first module or layer of hexagonal brood cells.
This module is in the shape of a small disk divided into approximately sixteen hexagonal brood cells or chambers. This number can vary considerably but you get the idea.
Once the queen has constructed this and surrounded it in a thin outer shell it looks a little bit like a golf ball with colours ranging from grey to almost yellow depending on the timber used for the construction.
What Do Wasps Feed On?
The next phase for the queen wasp is the laying of a single egg into the base of each new cell. Over the coming three to four weeks (depending on temperature and external conditions) the queen wasp will raise the developing larvae, feeding them on a diet rich in insect protein.
She does this (and her emerging daughters or workers will also do this) by finding insects and insect larvae (caterpillars are popular) and injecting them with venom. The venom injected disables the prey by paralysis and allows the queen to dissect the prey as required.
Caterpillars are often taken to the nest whole, but flying insects have the head, legs, wings and abdomen removed as the central unit of the body has the greatest protein concentrations as a result of containing the powerful muscles responsible for flight and articulation of the legs.
These little nuggets of protein are brought back and fed to the developing brood. It has also been recorded that wasps will carry out a pest control service for cattle, horses and pigs by picking of flies and other parasites both from the body of the animals and from animal housing.
As the larvae pupate the queen is freed up to continue nest construction and as the first brood begin to emerge the queen immediately cleans empty chamber and lays another egg into it. As the brood grows the petiole is enlarged and yet another, larger horizontal layer or disk is created. Where space is confined such as in wall cavities, subsequent layers may be created to fit the cavity.
Wasp Larvae and Pupae
Eventually, the queen will only have the job of laying eggs and the nest will continue to mature.
At full maturity, the largest nests in the UK will contain anything from 20000 to 100000 wasps but will probably account for less than five percent of nests with most wasps nest populations in the region of 3000 to 10000.
In some species such as the Hornet (Vespa crabro), this number will be far less, with only a few hundred individuals.
Climate plays a large part in population numbers in general. This is due to what might be termed the generation time, in other words, the time it takes for an egg to become an adult.
In cold weather, this could be four weeks, but in an exceptionally hot summer, this could be only a week. The best conditions are hot with good amounts of rain as it produces an increase in flying insect numbers and ensures the nutritional needs of the nest are easily met.
When Do Wasps Nests Decline?
Later in the summer or as the colony matures, males will develop and leave the nest to mate. Males do not sting as they do not possess the modified ovipositor or egg-laying tube that their mother and sisters possess.
At the same time, new queens will also be emerging generously equipped with a fully functional sting. Once mated they will normally go into hibernation where they will emerge to begin a new colony.
If conditions are mild, social wasps in the UK will mature more quickly and the emerging queens will create new nests in the same season. This has been seen in a number of species, in particular, the median wasp (Dolichovespula media).
Social Wasps have a reciprocal relationship with the developing brood. As the wasp larvae are fed they are able to produce a sticky treat for the adults and this might be viewed as an adhesive that helps bond the loyalty of the adults to the larvae and indeed the colony as a whole.
Male wasps have elongated abdomens, the sting is absent and they are usually much hairier than the females, and the colouration of a male hornet can be quite stunning. The photo at the top of the page shows a newly hatched male leaving the nest and his hairy thorax can be seen quite well.
What Happens To Wasps at The End of The Year?
As the summer draws to a close the temperature and prevailing conditions begin to make life for wasps increasingly difficult.
When the nest matures and the queen stops laying her precious eggs, the remaining larvae become future males and queens. The males die after mating and the new queens continue to hunt for a short time before settling into a suitable hibernation site for the winter.
What we regularly encounter in November and December is the phenomena of wasps entering homes from beneath floors, through holes in walls and ceilings and also down chimneys.
As the temperatures fall, the wasps remaining in the nest become increasingly disorientated by the effects of cold on their central nervous system similar to that of hypothermia in humans, and also a shortage of food from both external sources e.g. insects and fruit etc and from larvae in the colony.
All in all, they experience something of a famine and this causes them to wander into areas of a property where they would otherwise have no reason too.
Also as the nights grow shorter it is not unreasonable to suggest that the wasps would be more likely to explore the cavity in which they nest and discover new exits from the nest that appear to take them into warm sunshine only to discover it’s actually a bulb in someone’s bedroom.
What is The Point Of Wasps?
It must be stressed that wasps are remarkable insects that form an integral part of the wider eco-system. Removal of these insects is only required as a last resort – be kind to wasps and respect their space and chances are, they will be kind to you.
About British Wasps
The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris)
Length: 15 – 20mm long
Body: Black and yellow No black spots on its back
Face: Has an anchor shape on its face
Nest: Likes to nest in hollows in trees or in the ground etc with 10000 individuals
This is by far the most commonly encountered British wasp. It is found throughout the northern hemisphere and has been introduced to countries in the southern hemisphere such as Australia and New Zealand. It likes to nest in hollows such as those in trees or in the terrain itself, such as those created by rodents and other similar mammals. These hollows may then be enlarged over many months to accommodate the growing nest. At maturity, the nest will hold anything from 5000 – 10000 individuals.
The German Wasp (Vespula germanica)
Length: 12 – 20mm long
Body: Black and yellow with black spots on its abdomen
Face: Have three black spots on its face
Nest: Likes to nest in hollows in trees or in the ground etc with 5 – 10000+ individuals
The German Wasp joins V.vulgaris as one of the two most abundant wasp species in the British Isles. It is widespread throughout the northern hemisphere and is now found in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, North America and Argentina.
Females are 12-16mm long, antennas consist of 12 segments and a 6 segmented abdomen is equipped with a modified ovipositor that doubles as a sting.
Males are 12-18mm long and have 13 segments to their antennas and an abdomen consisting of 7 segments without a sting.
Queens, as you would expect, are larger at 17-20mm long and despite their ability to lay eggs, they can still use their ovipositor as a sting.
The nest is made with chewed up wood pulp mixed with saliva and is greyish in colour reaching football size with a diameter of 30cm (12in) that contains over 10,000 individuals.
In the northern hemisphere, environmental conditions take their toll and once abandoned in the autumn it quickly disintegrates. In the warmer climates such as Africa and Australia, the nest may continue to grow over consecutive seasons. This results in significant nests with over 100,000 individuals that are potentially very dangerous.
It usually chooses to nest underground yet is commonly found in the loft spaces and other cavities of dwellings. V. germanica can be aggressive so caution must be taken when in proximity to these insects.
The Red Wasp (Vespula rufa)
This species is 11 – 18 mm long and found across much of the UK where it prefers rural environments. Unlike other wasps, this species tends to represent less of a nuisance and health risk to humans as it does not scavenge for meat and the adults feed on nectar.
The adults Face has a thick black vertical line, sometimes forming an anchor like mark a feature it shares with it relative V. vulgaris, another feature of this species is that the malar space is very short.
The antennae are black at the base and there are only two yellow spots on the thorax. Tibiae without long hairs but the 1st abdominal segment has long black hairs and the rufous markings are characteristic in the first and second abdominal segments.
It builds a subterranean nest covered in more or less smooth sheet.
The Norwegian Wasp (Dolichovespula norwegica)
The Norwegian Wasp Dolichovespula norwegica is more common in the north of the country and is among the dominant species in Scotland.
In 1991 it was also recorded in Shetland on Fair Isle. This wasp is also known as the tree wasp and is associated with an aggressive temperament.
The face is divided by a vertical black bar and the malar (distance between the bottom of eye and jaw) space is broad. Antennae are yellow at the base. The thorax has black hairs at the side and two yellow spots at the rear.
The abdomen is often red at the front and the nest is like that of the Tree Wasp but with looser covering. The species D.saxonica is very similar but the face bar is often irregular and the thorax has pale hairs at the side. The abdomen is never red.
The Cuckoo Wasps (Dolichovespula adultarina and austriaca)
These British wasps are parasites of the red wasp (Vespula rufa) and the Saxon wasp (Dolichovespula saxonica).
The queen enters the nest of the red wasp once the nest is well developed and attempts to kill the defending queen. If successful she will kill all the existing offspring of their previous queen and lay her own eggs in the nest.
Once mature the newly emerging males and queens leave the nest not to be replaced and the nest quickly becomes abandoned.
The Tree Wasp (Dolichovespula sylvestris)
Dolichovespula sylvestris is an aggressive species not normally encountered in the far south. It is most easily identified by its prominent black spot in the centre of its face, making it one of the easier British wasps to identify.
The antennae are distinctive due to their yellow base and pale hairs along the sides of the thorax together with two yellow spots at the rear complete the key features.
The spherical nest is commonly found, as the name suggests, hanging in shrubs and hedges and rather prominently in trees and bird boxes, although it has also been found nesting in holes in the ground.
Nests are usually small (football sized) and rarely exceed 1000 or so active workers, issuing in and out of the nest entrance which is characteristically at the base of the nest.
The Saxon Wasp (Dolichovespula saxonica)
Length: 11 – 18mm long
Body: Black and yellow with no black spots on its abdomen
Face: Has an irregular black line down its face
Nest: Likes to nest in conspicuous locations hanging on guttering etc with 1000 or more individuals.
The Saxon wasp is a relative newcomer to the British Isles, however, it is common on the continent and across the northern hemisphere. It is found in the south of the UK currently but a poor awareness of this species means it likely to be misidentified.
It has very similar features to that of the median wasp (Dolichovespula media). What separates it from the median wasp is the irregularity of the line down the face as pictured below.
Other features are dark hairs on the upper surfaces, slowly fading into greyer hairs on its flanks. Nests tend to be relatively small in keeping with those of other Dolichovespula species. Commonly a nest will be about the size of a grapefruit with around 1000 – 1500 individuals however it may grow to well over 20 cm if conditions are conducive.
This small size means that these nests are relatively quick to mature and there often prominent placement in conspicuous locations means they are easily spotted and their fore treated.
These wasps reportedly have a good temperament which is less than can be said for the median wasp.
The Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media)
This is an aggressive species of British wasp that has a prominent sting that has been measured extending 3mm from the abdomen. This allows it to deliver a painful sting that causes skin lesions to develop.
Most other social wasps will attack directly towards you – D. media will fly up into the air, check you out then descend at speed to attack from the side and above.
The workers are relatively large at 15mm second in size, only to the European Hornet.
They produce spherical nests which are dark grey or graphite in colour usually in hedges and other similar vegetation where it is commonly encountered by gardeners carrying out pruning.
Pruning usually stops in a big hurry as these attack at great speed and pursue the victim until they no longer represent a threat. Its key features are that this species is almost black making it easily recognisable to the pest controller and its orange legs appear similar to that of Vespa crabro.
The abdomen has very thick black stripes with narrow yellow sometimes reddish stripes. Widespread across central Europe, the median wasp appeared in the UK in the 1980s and has spread across the southern half of the country where it is also now found in the south-west.
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By understanding your pest, you are able to plan treatments in advance, before an infestation occurs and the cost of elimination becomes high.
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