Frequently Asked Questions
When the queen emerges in spring, she does so at a time when she believes there will be enough nectar around from flowers to sustain her while she begins the new colony. Once she has produced enough worker adults, she stays in the nest. Her job is then simply to build the colony while the workers do the job of feeding her and her offspring. A common misconception is that adult wasps eat insects. They don’t. In fact they don’t even have the mouth parts that allow them to. Wasps do however kill insects in their millions, and use their strong mandibles for dissecting them and feeding them to their young, and for stripping wood to be used for nest construction. The larvae secrete and regurgitate some of this insect food in a sugary mix that is fed back to the adults. It’s a symbiotic relationship that continues throughout the season. When the queen stops producing larvae in late summer, that food source has gone. This is when wasps become a real pest, seeking their sugar elsewhere, from fruit and often from our food and drinks.
Initially it’s just the queen who gets the nest going. Once she has chosen her nest location and has enough energy from nectar, she will start stripping wood from fences, pallets, sheds and the like. She uses her powerful mandibles for this and you can often see it in action, with lines left behind where she has already worked. She then chews the wood, and mixes it with her saliva and wax to make a paste which she uses to build the complicated, paper like nest with hexagonal egg pods. She builds the nest up gradually from a centre stalk and adds cells around this one on top of another which she lays her eggs in.
Yes, wasps are key pollinators just like bees. They are fascinating insects with a complex social structure. They also kill a lot of insects to feed to their larvae, and thus very significantly help control pests in the garden. So they are a beneficial insect, and killing all wasps would create a whole host of other problems. But because they carry a venomous sting, when they get too close to human activity wasp pest control is required.
A wasp colony can have many thousand adults serving it by the end of the summer. Producing new queens is the last part of job. Having built the colony for months, at the end of the summer the queen switches behaviour and stops producing new adult workers. Instead she lays ‘queen eggs’, and ‘drone eggs’. Those are the last eggs she will lay. These eggs produce virgin queens and drone male wasps. These wasps leave the nest and move to special mating areas. Scientists believe that in these mating areas, the drones can recognise the virgin queens from their own colony and will not mate with them, thus ensuring no interbreeding happens and a guaranteeing a spread of the gene pool. Once mated the drones die and the now fertilised queens find somewhere to hibernate through the winter. It’s thought that each wasp nest will produce over 1000 new queens.
The main difference between hornets and wasps is simply size and colour. Hornets can be more than an inch in length and tend to have a more golden and brown colouring, whereas wasps are usually clearly yellow and black. Hornets produce much smaller nests of less than 500 individuals, whereas a wasp nest can be well over 5,000 strong. There are lots of similarities between the way wasps and hornets behave. For example in both wasps and hornets, at the end of the season the queens produce special eggs to produce new queens and only these try to survive the winter. A bee colony for instance produces honey to help them survive the harsher winter months. Like wasps, and unlike bees, female hornets can sting you multiple times. Both have hairless bodies, whereas bees have hairs covering the thorax.
No, it’s only the female wasp that carries a sting and venom in her tail. The reason is because the stinger or ovipositor is something that developed in early wasps only in the females, as it was used to inject eggs into things. The males never developed an ovipositor (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovipositor ), and therefor never developed their ability to sting.
Wasp venom is alkaline and needs countering with something acidic to neutralise it. A female wasp doesn’t leave her sting in you, unlike a bee. So for a simple wasp sting treatment with something you should have to hand around the house, you can rub it with vinegar to ease the pain. Note that vinegar does not work on bee stings (see below). Taking antihistamines should also help. An ice pack is a quick, practical and effective wasp sting remedy to help ease the pain and bring down the swelling. If you feel yourself feeling light-headed, short of breath, nauseous or can feel your tongue and throat swelling you may be going into anaphylactic shock, which can be extremely dangerous, and you should seek medical help immediately or call the NHS helpline on 111.
Unlike wasp stings, in which the venom is alkaline, bee stings are acidic. So a bee sting treatment needs to involve the application of something alkaline to neutralise it. Once you have removed the sting (see video link in answer above), give the area a squeeze to see if you can push out any venom. For your bee sting treatment you should then apply the alkaline. Examples of things you have around the house which make a useful bee sting remedy are bicarbonate of soda or baking soda paste, honey (which has natural anti-bacterial qualities as well) or even toothpaste. To ease the pain from a sting and bring down the swelling, try applying an ice pack. It may be worth taking anti histamines. Bee stings can make you light headed, nauseous and even short of breath. They can also cause swelling to the face and tongue, make your whole body seem itchy, and make you dizzy. If any of these symptoms are severe, seek advice by calling the free NHS Helpline (https://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/AboutNHSservices/Emergencyandurgentcareservices/Pages/NHS-111.aspx ) on 111.