Wasps are insects that belong to the family Vespidae. As we explore wasp facts, we will uncover their remarkable diversity, unique behaviors, and vital ecological roles.
One unique fact about wasps is their ability to sting multiple times without losing their stingers or dying, unlike bees. Bees have stingers lodged in the skin upon stinging, causing the bee to die soon after. However, wasps have smooth stingers that allow them to sting repeatedly.
Wasps and bees belong to Hymenoptera5, which includes ants and sawflies. However, they belong to different families within this order. Bees belong to the family Apidae, and wasps belong to various families, such as Vespidae, Sphecidae, and Pompilidae, among other wasps.
Wasps and bees may look similar, but they have notable differences. Wasps have slender bodies with a narrow waist, while bees are more robust.
Aside from that, wasps have smooth and shiny bodies with longer wings and a streamlined shape; sometimes, they have a bright yellow and orange coloration. Meanwhile, bees have hairy bodies for pollen collection and shorter wings.
Yellow jackets from the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula are easily recognizable due to their distinct yellow and black striped patterns. These social wasps are notorious for their defensive behavior and can display aggression when they sense a threat near their nest.
Hornets, in contrast, are giant wasps known for their powerful stingers. Notable examples include the European hornet and the Asian giant hornet, whose bodies measure approximately 4 cm (1.6 inches) long. They are formidable creatures that can cause painful stings if provoked.
Chalcid wasps, belonging to the family Chalcidoidea, represent diverse tiny wasps. These remarkable wasps lay their eggs inside other insects, and their developing larvae consume the host from within, eventually emerging as fully formed adult wasps. This group also includes the enchanting fairy wasps, the smallest insects. These minuscule wonders are less than one millimeter long.
Read more: Types of Wasps.
One interesting wasp fact is that social wasps, including yellow jackets and hornets, form impressive colonies with a hierarchical structure. Within these colonies, a queen takes on the role of reproduction, while worker wasps diligently carry out tasks such as nest construction, foraging for food, and defending the territory.
On the other hand, solitary wasps lead independent lives, constructing their nests and caring for their offspring individually. Interestingly, solitary wasps comprise most wasp species, each female taking charge of nest-building, egg-laying, and provisioning for its young.
Wasps live in numerous habitats worldwide, except for the polar regions. They can thrive in various environments, from tropical rainforests to peaceful suburban gardens.
In their natural habitat, wasps pick suitable locations for their nests, often using tree bark, animal burrows, or hanging nests from tree branches. These choices help to protect and stabilize their colonies, allowing them to develop thriving communities.
In urban areas, wasps use their resourcefulness to construct the wasp nest. Paper wasps and mud daubers use clever building strategies, such as building in corners and using mud under overhangs or on tree trunks.
Solitary wasps are primarily carnivores. They mainly feed on insects and spiders. Examples include Yellowjackets and Hornets, which are crucial in controlling pest populations.
Herbivorous wasps are less common. Fig Wasps rely on the sweet nectar produced by fig plants as their primary food source. Omnivorous wasps have a versatile diet and consume both animal and plant matter. They opportunistically feed on insects, spiders, fruits, nectar, pollen, and sugary substances.
Next on our wasp facts list: Wasps have different mating rituals depending on whether they are social or solitary. Social wasps have specific roles within their colony. When the queen emerges from hibernation in spring or early summer, she establishes a small nest and releases a pheromone to attract male drones3. These drones engage in mating flights and compete to mate with the queen.
After mating, the male wasps die, and the queen stores sperm to fertilize her eggs throughout her lifetime. During winter, the queen mates and hibernates while the rest of the colony perishes.
Solitary wasps have a simpler mating process. When it's time to mate, male and female solitary wasps search for potential mates. Once a male finds a receptive female, he performs a mating ritual to attract her.
After mating, the male's role in reproduction ends, and he may search for other opportunities. The female then looks for a suitable site for her nest and lays her eggs.
Only female wasps have stingers1. And unlike bees, they can sting multiple times because they can quickly retract their stingers. When a wasp stings, it injects venoms into its target. This venom contains toxic substances that can cause various effects4, including pain, swelling, and allergic reactions.
Though most stings are not life-threatening, being cautious is still essential. People who have been stung for two times or more develop allergies to t wasp venom. If they get stung again, they might experience a severe allergic reaction.
Researchers have discovered that a venomous wasp species in Brazil, Polybia paulista, produces a toxin called MP1. This toxin has the potential to eliminate cancer cells without causing harm to healthy cells.
MP1 interacts with fat molecules unevenly distributed on the surface of cancerous cells2, creating gaps that result in the leakage of molecules crucial for cell function. Moreover, these molecules are safely concealed within healthy cells, which means they can evade the impact of MP1.
Queen wasps can live for a few months to over a year, depending on the species. Female worker wasps, who cannot reproduce, have shorter lives, usually for a few weeks to a few months. They build nests, find food, care for larvae, and protect the colony.
Additionally, the male wasp has the shortest lifespan among social wasps. Their only purpose is to mate with new queens in autumn. After mating, drones quickly die off. They usually live for only a few weeks.
Many people view wasps as a nuisance, but wasps are natural predators of many harmful insects that can damage crops, making them an essential part of natural pest control. Without wasps, crop pests could grow out of control, leading to potential damage and lower yields in agricultural settings.
Unfortunately, certain species of wasps are now at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use. Losing these insects would have far-reaching consequences, disrupting ecosystems and impacting pollination and biodiversity. Wasps are essential for pest control and pollination, and their absence could lead to imbalances with profound implications.
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Feás, X., Vidal, C., & Remesar, S. (2022). What We Know about Sting-Related Deaths? Human Fatalities Caused by Hornet, Wasp and Bee Stings in Europe (1994–2016). Biology, 11(2), 282.
Leite, N. B., Aufderhorst-Roberts, A., Palma, M. S., Connell, S. D., Neto, J. R., & Beales, P. A. (2015). PE and PS Lipids Synergistically Enhance Membrane Poration by a Peptide with Anticancer Properties. Biophysical Journal, 109(5), 936–947.
Oi, C. A., Millar, J. G., Van Zweden, J. S., & Wenseleers, T. (2016). Conservation of queen pheromones across two species of vespine wasps. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 42(11), 1175–1180.
Piek, T., & Mantel, P. (1986). Cholinergic antagonists in a solitary wasp venom. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C: Comparative Pharmacology.
Johnson, N. F., & Lahey, Z. (2021). Hymenoptera. In Elsevier eBooks.
Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.
Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.
Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.