Wasps and Hornets: Unlikely Allies

More than just pollinators, wasps and hornets are actually beneficial insects.

| September/October 2016

Many people treat their gardens and backyards like a battlefield, waging war on anything they consider pests. Diseases, weeds, animals and insects all find themselves in the crosshairs. Until recently, the standard tactic was a “nuke ‘em all” approach of chemical warfare, especially where insects are concerned. Times and attitudes are changing, as gardeners have come to realize dead bugs aren’t necessarily the only good bugs. New strategies include insect-friendly practices like crop rotation, companion plants, buffer zones, and beneficial insect releases.

But one insect ally still can’t get a fair break, thanks to a mostly undeserved reputation for having a bad temper. As a friend of mine noted, no one has ever been described as “happy-go-lucky as a hornet.” For that matter, this may be the only time you’ll ever read the phrase “perky as a paper wasp.”

For the most part, people need not fear these underappreciated beneficial insects. That is, assuming you don’t have an allergy to their venom, and as long as you’re not throwing rocks at their nest. Venom allergies can be life threatening, so those allergic to a wasp sting get a pass on “live and let live” for nests in bad locations. But unless the nest is near a high-traffic area, there’s no reason to mess with it.

Wasps and hornets don’t go out of their way to pick a fight, regardless of popular opinion. They will, however, defend their nest vigorously if they feel it is threatened. That being said, you’re fine as long as you stay away. How far is far enough? For paper wasps, that means no closer than 4 or 5 feet from the nest, and 10 to 15 feet for a hornet’s nest. Yellow jackets will get excited if you step on their nest entrance or approach it with a lawnmower.

Wasps and hornets belong in the order Hymenoptera, along with bees and ants. It’s a big group, with some 150,000 species known worldwide. Most gardeners recognize and value the efforts of solitary parasite wasps, such as braconid wasps, feeding on tomato hornworm caterpillars. Most tomato growers at one point or another have seen a tomato hornworm, covered by and being eaten by pupating larva of braconid wasps, a cocoon resembling a grain of rice. However, this article is concerned not with solitary wasps, but colonial wasps, particularly members of two genera: Polistes (paper wasps) and Dolichovespula (hornets).

A little trivia about Dolichovespula: They aren’t true hornets; they’re aerial nesting yellow jackets. There is only one true hornet in North America, an introduced species that looks like a giant yellow jacket. Some things are just never simple.

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