I wear an open face helmet when riding my motorbike, I love the sense of immersion in the passing world, the scents that tell a constantly changing story. The events around me are told in smells of new ploughed earth, damp stubble or newly cut grass.
I was riding along when I glimpsed a black dot as it sped toward me, or rather I sped towards it at around fifty miles an hour. The next second I realised the dot had entered my helmet beside my temple, this was followed immediately by an excruciating pain. It was a wasp and it proceeded to sting me a number of times as I endeavoured to get a finger into my helmet and hook it out. When I could, I pulled off the road and made sure it was gone from my helmet lining. There was a temptation to curse all wasp-kind as my temple throbbed and I had visions of the poison entering my brain. But I reflected it wasn’t really its fault and they do have an important part to play in nature.
Those big wasps one finds in winter dozily tucked into rags in the garage or behind a curtain are queens, with the first warm kiss of spring they will awaken, though there is no prince to help them to start building their new castle. They chew wood and start their nests, as soon as a few rooms are complete they will lay the eggs they have carried all winter. The work is very hard and they need to feed on sugars from flowers or fruit but have little time to search whilst trying to get a successful colony going. In recent years warm winters have meant many wake up to early and cannot find enough sustenance to start a nest. The nest is produced by painstaking chewing of wood for the basis of their papier-mâché nest, and once the first grubs hatch feeding them with insects or carrion.
This is where the wasp is so useful, helping clean up dead animals, killing garden pests and fertilising flowers.
Soon the grubs can help her, they do this in two ways; firstly they break down the chitin in the insects she feeds them and feed her the free sugars that result, so she doesn’t need to spend so much time looking for food. Secondly they start chewing wood fragments she brings them and helping build the nest. Once she has hatched enough workers (all female) she becomes nest-bound to continue laying eggs whilst the workers work at nest building, nest cooling and grub feeding.
At a certain point between late summer and winter all the queen wasps decide to produce new queens and drones (males), wondrously they all hatch at the same time and mating swarms happen briefly. Now the old queen stops laying grubs and the workers are deprived of sustenance and start to starve, this is when they become a nuisance; diving into your jam sandwich or pint, desperate for sugar. Of course they and the old queen all die as winter comes, only a few of the tucked away sleeping princess in their beautiful gold and black gowns will make it through to be kissed by the Spring.