August is the month of wasps. As a child, and even into adult hood, I was the first to be waving my arms about in panic and fear at the sight of any wasp, and sitting outside in pub beer garden’s was always met with trepidation.
Since keeping bees, my fear turned to hatred, and anger. How dare these nasty creatures attack my precious bees, attempting to steal their warned earned honey harvest, after I’d taken what the bees were happy to share with me.
I lost a colony a couple of years ago, early in the spring. It was still too cold to open up the hive, and the warmer days were few and far between, so I wasn’t often given the opportunity to observe the comings and goings.
I did however notice a rather large wasp ( a queen) buzzing around the roof space of my WBC hive. As soon as I realised what she was, I lifted the lid, she was too large to use the bee escape so I knew that lifting the roof off would be the quickest route. To my horror, I found she’s been busy building a wasp nest attached to the roof of the hive. She must have moved in last autumn, after I’d closed up the hive for winter and quietly hibernated in the roof until the longer days sparked her into action, building a nest, laying eggs and feeding off my bee’s stores, and then the larvae. I felt dreadful, how could I have not seen this going on, my poor poor bees.
I often get calls out in the spring to collect bee ‘swarms’ only to find that they are newly hatched hornets or wasps, or even bumble bees, but that’s a whole other tale… Then in late summer, I get calls about ‘bees’ scaring children or preventing outdoor parties, again it’s more often than not wasps. We’ve always had wasps in our garden, sometimes eating the aphids on our willow, other times nesting in flower beds or hedges, we used to get them ‘removed’, then we learned that ant powder ‘does the trick’. The wasps don’t like it, and now neither do I. We know so little about was and what their part is in the circle of life.
“…are wasps really the evil insect they’re always made out to be?”
Chatting about wasps with Matt Somerville earlier in the summer, he had the most interesting observation. He’d noticed a wasp nest close to one of his bee hives and was pondering on what, if anything, to do about it. He had a small, but significant, patch of buckwheat growing next to his hive and it became over run with aphids. To his interest, the wasps sprung into action, gobbling up all the aphids, rescuing the crop, allowing it to flower in time for the bees to pollinate it. With the wasp’s carnivores appetite, aphids were a most timely meal and meant the the wasps didn’t need to feed on the bee larvae. By observing this twist in nature, Matt’s wasps were saved from slaughter, but also meant we all stopped and thought again, are wasps really the evil insect they’re always made out to be?
In the spring and early summer wasps are looking for protein, usually in the form of insects and aphids, to feed their growing grubs. Then by August, they all want carbohydrates, and honey is the perfect source. Wasps don’t attack any hive though, they do select the weaker colonies, which is where holistic management of bees comes into play. A colony can become weak through any number of factors, location, over manipulation, low immunity, toxicity from their environment, old age, very much like humans, except bees let go of their weakest members, not allowing them to return to the hive when exhausted and weak. A hive is only as strong as it’s weakest member and as a queen dies, a new queen is reared, along with a batch of drones ( male bees) who will leave the hive and carry on the genetic strain by mating with a freshly hatched queen from a healthier colony. By killing queen and drone cells, we are deciding which are the weak and strong colonies, not allowing millennia of genetic wisdom and experience to do what it knows is best.
…I see this more as ‘death through misadventure’, rather than murder.
This past week I have noticed various hives of my own and client’s fighting battles with wasps. Entrances are narrowed using propolis, or with our assistance with sticks and wood, and a strong colony defends it’s entrance with a double or triple layer of guard bees, not allowing the wasps to enter, A weaker colony has to watch as the wasps story straight in and help themselves to a feast of honey or larvae, or are they up to something else, hidden from the viewing beekeeper?
So what do I do? I have been setting up wasp traps, using old marmalade jars with a hole punched in the lid, one way entrances for wasps. Old plastic bottles, cut open and reversed making a funnel to a death trap of jam or marmalade with water at the bottom. Interestingly, these traps are deathly for wasps but don’t appear to attract bees. I see this more as ‘death through misadventure’, rather than murder.
Ants Bees & Wasps
I was particularly excited to have my local bookshop put aside ‘Ants, Bees and wasps’ by Lord Avebury published in 1902. I’ve had a brief look through and am fascinated that Avebury spent a whole summer observing the three species, using experiments with coloured papers and various tests to learn about the behaviour patterns and social interactions of them all. I was hoping for a chapter on how they relate to one another, but alas, not in this publication!
I’d be very interested to learn of other observations and experiences and tips on how to allow all insects to thrive alongside one another, without too much distress to me as their landlady!