Just like bees, wasps are highly valuable insects, study finds

All Categories Conservation Wildlife

We have always had a rocky relationship with wasps. They are the sort of insects we love to hate. They’ve ruined a good number of picnics and disrupted us from enjoying pints in pub beer gardens. But wasps deserve much more credit, a group of researchers argue, as they provide key ecosystem services that we all rely on.

United Kingdom researchers found that the reputation of wasps as irritating but pointless insects is far from fair. There’s a prejudice against them that is culturally embedded, rising from our ignorance about what wasps do in ecosystems and how that’s beneficial for us. They are crucial predators and pollinators, the authors argue.

“We value bees (which also sting) because they pollinate our crops and make honey. We go out of our way to rescue a bee from inside a window; but we don’t flinch as we slam a rolled-up magazine over a wasp in the same situation,” Seirian Sumner, co-author of the study, wrote in a commentary, summarizing the study’s findings.

Scientists try to define the value of natural resources to us in terms of their ecosystem services — the functions or goods provided by nature that support the quality of human life. Some are very familiar, such as the value of pollination services by bees, without which we would have to hand-pollinate our crops (and/or starve).

Certain insects are renowned for their contributions, but that’s not the case with wasps. Studies have shown that wasps eat a lot of insects, many of which could be agricultural pests. But nobody has calculated their efforts, for example the quantity of insect pests wasps remove from agricultural landscapes.

Sumner and her team looked at over 500 scientific papers on stinging wasps to understand how they contribute to ecosystems, and how this can help the economy, human health, and society. There are 100,000 known wasp species, but 70,000 are parasitic, which are stingless and quite well studied.

“Wasps are understudied relative to other insects like bees, so we are only now starting to properly understand the value and importance of their ecosystem services. We have reviewed the best evidence there is, and found that wasps could be just as valuable as other beloved insects like bees if only we gave them more of a chance,” Sumner said in a statement.

These are some of the ecosystem services provided by wasps, according to the study, which show we shouldn’t take this insect for granted:

Nature pest controllers

Over 30,000 species of wasps act as pest controllers, hunting a diversity of invertebrates from bugs and spiders to roaches. They regulate the populations of these organisms alongside other predators like mammals and amphibians. They can even match fluctuations in prey populations due to their short lives and fast reproduction rate.

As awareness expands over the detrimental effect of chemicals used in agriculture on wildlife, the researchers argue we have to look for more sustainable approaches. And this is where predatory wasps enter. Insects have a long history of being used as biocontrol agents of crop pests, with an overall value estimated at $417 billion.

Pollination services

Over 75% of our crops rely on insects for pollination, with pollination services estimated to be worth over $235 billion a year worldwide. While wasps hunt prey to feed their offspring, the adults are herbivores and visit flowers for carbohydrates in the form of sugar. Just like bees.

The researchers counted 164 plant species across six families that are completely reliant on wasps for pollination. Most of these are orchids that have evolved to mimic female wasp pheromones — some even look like the back end of a female wasp. There are no studies yet to estimate the value of wasps as pollinators.

Food and medicine

Wasps and many other insects are high in protein and essential amino acids. Pound for pound, they use less space or water and emit fewer greenhouse gases and ammonia than other livestock. That’s why the researchers suggest insects as food for humans as a possible avenue to sustainable food security. Over 2 billion people already consume insects in their diet.

But it’s not all about food. Wasps’ venom has plenty of benefits for human health, as it’s packed with antibiotics and antimicrobials. The venom has been of significant pharmacological interest lately due to the many biologically-active molecules it contains. Of recent interest is its potential in the treatment of cancer, for example.

The study was published in the journal Biological Reviews.