They are one of the most unwelcome signs of summer. Buzzing through beer gardens, attacking innocent picnics, wasps arrive ominously with a sting in their tails. Universally disliked, they are swatted, trapped and cursed. But would a wasp-free world really be a better place?
Despite their poor public image, wasps are incredibly important for the world’s economy and ecosystems. Without them, the planet would be pest-ridden to biblical proportions, with much reduced biodiversity. They are a natural asset of a world dominated by humans, providing us with free services that contribute to our economy, society and ecology.
Wasps, as we know, turn up everywhere. More than 110,000 species have been identified, and it is estimated there are still another 100,000 waiting to be discovered. One recent study described 186 new wasp species in one small corner of Costa Rican rainforest alone. In contrast there are only around 5,400 species of mammals, and 14,000 recorded species of ant.
This huge and diverse assemblage belongs to the order Hymenoptera and is divided into two groups, the Parasitica and the Aculeata. Almost 80,000 species of wasps belong to the Parasitica group, which lay their eggs in or on their prey or plants using elongated tubular organs called ovipositors. The remaining 33,000 species are Aculeates, most of which are predators, and the ones whose ovipositors have been modified through evolution to form a sting.
Both parasitic and predatory wasps have a massive impact on the abundance of arthropods, the largest phylum in the animal kingdom, which includes spiders, mites, insects, and centipedes. They are right at the top of the invertebrate food chain. Through the regulation of both carnivorous and plant-feeding arthropod populations, wasps protect lower invertebrate species and plants. This regulation of populations is arguably their most important role, both ecologically and economically.