As the summer fades and the world’s tilt encourages autumn to jog towards winter, wasps become listless and unpredictable. The German wasp Vespula germanica and common wasp V. vulgaris are two species found in Britain and both tend to be loathed and feared by most. Each, however, is its own wasp and regards us with little interest because they do waspy things to survive regardless of the view of creatures in general, and humans not in particular. I took the pictures of this queen V. germanica at the Arundel WWT last May. She was collecting wood shavings to make a nest and was oblivious to me watching closely. You see, she was a Purposeful Wasp.
Although my main interest drifts towards birds, I have become very fond of insects over the years. As with most youngsters I was taught that anything with more than four legs, especially something that buzzes, and absolutely a creature bedecked in a yellow and black livery, must be avoided or obliterated. Avoiding took the general form of running around yelling “Jasper!” and waving ones arms; whereas obliteration was achieved by a rolled up newspaper. Such was the fear inherent in my West Country village that ‘wasp traps’ were put out in the form of unwashed jam jars full of water. These quickly became a struggling mass of drowning creatures. These too were Purposeful Wasps.
I like wasps. I even paused on a long run in the summer to watch a fine hornet hunting near West Ashling. So, what is a Purposeful Wasp? In spring the queens crawl out from hibernation and find a nice place to start a family. She chews off strips of dead wood (untreated fences are favourites) and builds a small nest in which her first eggs are laid.
These become her workers and she retires to lay more eggs. The year rolls on. Each wasp has a duty – gathering wood or food or defending the nest. In late summer males and virgin queens are produced, the old queen dies and the colony dies over the autumn months. All through this time wasps are Purposeful. They fly direct to a source of food or wood and directly back to the nest. The map in their little brains sticks and they return time and again until the resource is exhausted. Then they quickly learn and stop their pattern, searching out other resources.
Through the first phases I have found that wasps have no innate need to attack the peaceful observer. I’ve even had them fly through circled fingers and thumbs without deviation. I don’t advocate messing around near nests, but at food and wood sources I have never been stung. A wasp with a purpose can be read quite easily, and observed quite safely. By autumn, though, the wasps are effectively marooned automatons with no leader. Then they are the Jaspers of my childhood and will sting.