We all have that “one friend”—the one you think twice about taking anywhere, knowing they’re most likely going to say the wrong thing, get in a fight and possibly cause a little property damage. Despite all these red flags, there’s some sort of endearing quality that just makes you want to keep them around. They’re always there when you need them, you know they have your back. No matter what the haters say, they’ll always be on the team.
For me, in the garden, these friends are wasps.
Now, “wasp” is a broad category of interesting insects that includes a wide berth of size, appearance and lifestyle. Using the word wasp is like using the term bee. For the sake of this article, when I say wasp I’m referring to three of my special friends in the genus vespa: paper wasps, yellow jackets and hornets.
If you’re immediately thinking about getting stung in the face and robbed of tasty morsels at a picnic, chill out. I get it, all three of my special friends can be assholes from time to time. But trust me, you’re not important enough to even be on the average wasp’s radar. And please don’t miss an opportunity to make new friends. In the garden, they are among your strongest midsummer allies.
Why you should like them
These wasps are all predatory beneficial insects, meaning they hunt and devour many other insects that are damaging your crops. Aphids, caterpillars and other soft bodied insects are easy prey. Wasps are even powerful enough to take out grasshoppers and katydids. Wasps consume these pests and then feed the liquified carcasses to their young, and then in turn feed on the sugary substances their brood excrete. Adult wasps also feed on nectar and other sugary liquids.
I love watching wasps hunt in the garden. The next time you see one, sit quietly and observe how they patrol plants in a gridlike pattern, systematically searching for pests. Imagine the terror of being a cabbage moth caterpillar, munching on a tasty kale leaf, to then hear the death call of a wasp’s buzzing wings. There’s nowhere to run, you can’t run, since you’re basically a tasty little soft-bodied bug sausage. Within seconds, you’re stung, consumed, and headed back to the wasp lair. Makes you feel a little silly for making a big deal about being simply stung, doesn’t it?
Understanding the life cycle of these wasps is important in becoming better friends with them. The most common wasp in our area is the paper wasp. Paper wasps begin each season as a single queen, who overwintered in a protected area. Having had all the romance she required the previous fall, she begins the season by building the first few cells of her initial hive. By chewing wood fibers and mixing them with saliva, she builds a simple structure and lays her first brood. She then hunts insects ruthlessly, feeding her growing brood with high protein liquid yum yums.
At this point, the anti pest power of the colony is low, as only the queen is hunting. The hive is also incredibly vulnerable, so if it is built in an area that is high traffic and risks the life and safety of those allergic to stings, this is the time to remove it. If it is out of your way, such as under the eaves on the back of your shed, leave it be. Wasps are somewhat territorial, and leaving a colony to defend its territory is a great way to prevent other wasps from moving in.
Once the brood hatches, the queen remains at the hive, exclusively laying more eggs. The new workers hunt and work to expand the hive she worked to create. At this point, the pest control benefits of the colony begin to rise exponentially, as the number of workers begins to swell. Alongside the actions of other predatory insects, this can serve to quickly decimate any pest population in your garden. This is often one of the reasons we see many pest problems seemingly vanish by midsummer.
This is also now the point at which the hive is the strongest, and often the most difficult to remove. Also, when wasps, particularly hornets, are killed, they release a pheromone that triggers others to attack. Next time, plan ahead.
As fall approaches, the workers alter the diet fed to the brood and begin to shift the next generation from workers to new queens and males. This then decreases the overall population of brood, which means the worker wasps now suddenly find themselves with adequate amounts of the sugary secretions of the brood to feed on themselves. This means they hunt insects less, and start invading your picnic more, drawn to sugary liquids.
These new queens find males to mate with from other colonies, and then a safe place to overwinter. The following year, they will begin a new colony, and the whole process begins again.
To help protect this overwintering queen and next year’s supply of new wasp friends for your garden, avoid over-tidying leaf litter and the wild areas of your garden. These insulated and protected spaces are crucial for this overwintering queen, as well as numerous other species of pollinators and beneficials insects. That’s right, do more by doing less, a true boss move.
James Loomis is a full-time urban farmer, educator and keeper of the Old Cherry Orchard (aka OchO), a permaculture farm. He lives in Salt Lake City.