Here’s another chapter from my new book, Ten Million Aliens.
Mostly, we think of inverts either with indifference or with fear and loathing. We tend to meet inverts in normal life only when something has gone wrong. Inverts tell us that our attempt to civilise the world is incomplete. Inverts tell us of the irrefragable failure of humankind: spiders in the bath, cockroaches in the kitchen, flies on the ceiling, daddy longlegs in the bedroom, the terrible itch of mosquito bites. Perhaps the most hated invert of them all is the wasps at the picnic. Here they come, smart as paint in their striped livery, rascals on the spree, bingeing on jam, squash, Pimms and beer, homing in on picnics and barbecues and pub gardens across the land.
Is there anything good about wasps? Are they sent only to plague us, to spoil our attempts at a good time, to upset us on those few cherished fine days when the family is all together? Is their entire evolutionary purpose to frighten children, harass holiday-makers and sting al fresco lovers on the bum? Before we start to dive over the drop-off into the world of animals without backbones, let us pause just for a second to consider the fact that this book wouldn’t be possible without wasps. Nor would Wisden, I Ching, Finnegans Wake, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and The Origin of Species. Nor any of David Beckham’s autobiographies. Human culture might have taken a very different form without wasps.
We only meet wasps on those end-of-the-season occasions, times when an intensely social and desperately hard-working insect gets a free pass to go out and have fun. We only meet wasps when they have finished with their duties of raising grubs into adults and securing the future of the colony. This period of all-consuming activity ends up with big numbers of workers with nothing left to do but have a bit of fun before the autumnal chills kills them. There are eight or nine species of social wasps in this country, including the much feared but comparatively gentle hornets. Hornets have a fearsome sting but are more reluctant to use it than other wasps. They are a decent, even rather alarming size, with brown rather than black stripes against the yellow: handsome little animals. There are also around 240 species of solitary wasps in Britain; none of them has a taste for picnicking.
Social wasps begin their lives when the warm weather comes. The queens, sole survivors from the madness of the previous summer, wake from hibernation full of last season’s sperm. Their job is to make new colonies: or to speak genetically, to continue the old colony. Each one will make a nest, lay eggs, forage and feed the first generation of workers. Once that generation is up and buzzing, the colony can expand its ideas. The new workers take over the job of enlarging the nest and feeding the grubs, which means that the queen can concentrate on laying eggs. The grubs are fed on other insects, but you won’t see a wasp carrying prey back to the nest. A worker catches an adult insect, stings it to death, rips off the legs and the wings, and then chews up the rest, to be fed as goo to the growing grubs back in the hive. The same process, minus the wing-removal, takes places when they catch caterpillars and other larval forms. Eventually there are enough workers to raise a generation of males and queens. These wasps won’t help around the hive: sex is all that concerns them.
Thus a series of generations, about one every fortnight, works to ensure the colony’s continuation for the following season. Once that’s done, it’s the end of term. Hive’s out for summer, hive’s out for ever. And so these insects that live a life with a complex pattern, essential predators on all kinds of plaguing and pestilential insects of others species, go out on their annual foray to get themselves a bad name.
But we should bless wasps every time we see one. Without wasps, the spread of knowledge across the history of human kind would have been desperately hampered. Because wasps invented paper. A wasp’s nest is as exquisite a thing as you will see anywhere in the natural world. It is a glorious piece of architecture created from of wood pulp and spit, chewed up and manufactured into – paper. The Chinese cracked the technique a couple of thousand years ago and the rest is – in every sense – history.
I ask you, then, to raise your glass rather than your newspaper to the wasps you see as you take tea or drinks in the garden in the summer. These late-season hooligans live a highly evolved social life, are essential predators in a complex eco-system, they create a thing of genuine beauty, and without them, what would Shakespeare have written on? “I’ll be waspish, best beware my sting,” says Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. We’ve got it all wrong about inverts: we do wrong to distance ourselves from them, we do wrong to hate them, we do wrong to look away from them. Fellow-animals. What’s so special a backbone anyway?