My secret to a great relationship with Common Wasps

Wasp flying to a Figwort_Rowena Millar

Who loves the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris)? Whatever your feelings, please read on, because I may have discovered the secret of how to coexist peacefully with our stripy neighbours.

Unless you are seriously allergic to the stings (and possibly even if you are), I hope my discovery will enable you to sit outside in a beautiful flowery garden all summer, with Common Wasps flying by and ignoring you, along with the bees, the hoverflies and some of the approximately 9,000 other species of UK wasps.

Before I reveal my breakthrough, here is some information...

What are wasps for?

Wasps belong in our natural ecosystem. Tragically slowly, humanity is realising that we cannot pick and choose which parts of the ecosystem to label as pests and kill off. Everything has evolved to coexist together as part of the whole. The more we upset the balance, the more we affect our whole intricate environment.

Common Wasps are predators of our garden ‘pests’. As apex predators living in large colonies, they help gardeners by massively reducing the numbers of aphids, caterpillars and insect grubs that eat our food plants. They also prey on other common invertebrates, from woodlice to spiders, so that the balance of nature doesn’t go out of kilter. They feed all the victims to their young, providing a natural and effective pest control, unlike indiscriminate chemical pesticides.

Wasps are pollinators, and they pollinate our cultivated flowers and crops as well as native wild flowers. This fact is the key to my secret, which will be revealed soon.

Wasps are architects. Have you ever seen a wasp using her mandibles to scratch up wood from a garden fence, shed or seat? She’s a dedicated crafter gathering her materials to help build an architectural wonder. As it grows, the nest resembles a trendy spherical lampshade, perhaps about the size of a football. Inside are symmetrical hexagonal cells shaped like honeycomb but neither made of wax nor full of honey. As the originators of papier mâché nests, wasps may well have inspired the Chinese to invent paper.

Wasps are highly developed social beings, living in a community. Each worker is devoted to building and supporting the next generation, passing on their own genes.

Wasps may be useful in medicine. Wasp venom could become a future cure for cancer. Research is ongoing on the venom of tropical social wasps.

The Common Wasp life cycle

Having mated once, a queen emerges from hibernation to build the first cells of her nest, laying one egg in each. After about a month, adult female workers emerge and begin foraging, nest building and feeding the young, while the queen lays more eggs. Workers feed the larvae on prey and in return, the larvae feed their carers a sugary reward.

Apparently, unmated workers can lay unfertilised eggs, which turn into male wasps, but there is competition: some workers’ eggs are eaten by rivals. Mated queens produce fertile eggs that hatch out as females, although later in the season a queen can also lays eggs that become males.

Once the colony is big enough and before the end of summer, males and young emerged queens mate. Once this last generation has pupated, there are no young left to feed the workers. They become desperately hungry, hence the bothering behaviour at picnics. Fertilised queens hibernate but the workers will soon die.

German wasps (Vespula germanica)

If you find a greyish nest and larger wasps (but smaller than hornets), they are probably German Wasps, which look very similar to Common Wasps. They tend to make nests in the ground, so maybe this is the sort I once fell on (with no nasty consequences, despite angry wasps climbing up my legs). Common Wasps often nest in the ground, too, though. Fortunately, German Wasps are native and non-aggressive … unless someone falls on their nest.

 

Wasps in the loft_Rowena Millar

Wasps in the loft_Rowena Millar

My secret to living peacefully with wasps

I have discovered by chance that there are specific flowers in our garden that are so sugary, they divert wasps from our food and drinks.

In the past, I felt the need to put out jam traps, but over recent years, as the scented flower and ripe fruit content of the garden has gone up, wasps have stopped bothering us. A recent garden guest was amazed at how wasps were ignoring our outdoor meal, including home-made jams and condiments, preferring to feed on the flowers nearby.

The best wasp-feeding flower of all is probably Figwort, once known as ‘the wasp flower’.

Wasp feeding on Figwort_Rowena Millar

Wasp feeding on Figwort_Rowena Millar

So my secret is simple: although you can’t stop wasps coming into your garden, you can tempt them away using natural foods they love, and the same goes for ants, slugs, snails and other creatures that are seen as pests. Given a little time and less interference from us, nature regulates numbers and restores a balance.

Wasp flying to a Figwort_Rowena Millar

Wasp flying to a Figwort_Rowena Millar

Common Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) and Water Figwort (Scrophularia umbrosa)

Tall Figwort plants in the garden_Rowena Millar

Tall Figwort plants in the garden_Rowena Millar

According to the US Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation book 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, ‘figworts are amongst the most prolific nectar producers in the plant world’.

The flowers look like tiny hooded cups, and also attract bees including mason bees. Figworts are plants of open woodland or wet woodlands, damp meadows, pond margins and riverbanks.

Depending on the variety and situation, figworts can grow to between 4ft and 10ft tall. They are not common as garden plants, not being showy (although the flowers are a lovely dark red). They are easy to grow by seed or root division, however, and their foliage apparently discourages deer and rabbits. Figworts can be grown in partial shade to full sun.

Close-up of Figwort flowers

Close-up of Figwort flowers Rowena_Millar

Other pro-wasp plants

I tried looking up other plants to attract wasps online, but every site I found was about deterring wasps, even the wildlife gardening ones. I found one list of four, including figwort, which is accompanied by a list of four other plant groups or species to deter wasps if you are not convinced by my idea.

Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa/Scrophularia auriculata)

Water Figwort (Scrophularia umbrosa)

Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot – great for attracting many types of insect, Daucus carota)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Online, you can find photographs of Common Wasps feeding on a wide variety of flower species, including Astrantia, umbellifers, heathers and daisies. Of course, ripe fruit attracts hungry wasps in late summer, so do be careful picking plums and collecting windfall apples.

Anti-wasp plants

Mints including Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and Pennyroyal (although our spearmint grows amongst figwort, and the wasps are still visiting the figwort!)

Marigolds (for deterring other insects that wasps might prey upon)

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris and other varieties)

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum).

Enjoy the garden

A few years ago I had a chair in a quiet corner right next to a wasp’s nest in a compost heap, and the wasps flew straight past me as they went about their business. They only live for one year, so why waste precious time on humans?

So do enjoy being outside in the garden this summer, and try growing flowers that are sugary in late summer, a little distance away from where you eat. I cannot guarantee complete avoidance of accidental wasp stings, but I hope this article will help us share our gardens at peace with Common Wasps.