Wasps and beekeepers

It’s that time of year when wasps become increasingly reviled by beekeepers. The ecology of wasps differs from bees in many ways despite their relatedness. Wasps are omnivores, and feed their larvae protein in the form of other insects (including bees and their grubs), and the adults consume carbohydrates in the form of any sugar, hence their predilection for sugary or alcoholic drinks, as well as sandwiches.

Beehives are consequently a rich resource worth plundering by a wasp colony, and a stronger neighbouring bee colony. In my experience, bees are more likely to rob than wasps and certainly take no prisoners, but the bees tend to join the stronger colony.

Healthy honey bee colonies with a functioning queen emit a strong pheromone and this wafts from the hive entrance, signalling to potential imposters (wasp; hornet; wax moth; passing honey bee) that they will not be tolerated. Reducing the size of the hive entrance and ensuring the whole hive is bee tight is the best way we can help our bees if they do not have size on their side with a phalanx of guards. WBC lifts can be notorious for allowing ingress and do ensure they are on straight – ditto roofs.

I have a Warré in my front garden with a cast swarm from this year. They are not very large: they are barely filling the top box. Around the corner up in the eaves of my house (by the drainpipe) is a very active wasp’s nest:

Please excuse wonky thumbnail, and Jason the cockerel…

My garden is rather a jungle, with much for a hungry wasp to eat. I have apple trees and chickens, so there is fallen fruit and a lot of flies. Brambles course through my beech hedge, and the dying tree is festooned in mature ivy – another magnet for insects. I often see wasps and hornets around there: I wonder if the lack of alternatives in your average apiary (in fact, the lack of alternative food sources full stop) contributes to beehives becoming targeted. That may be rather wistful, but I would regard a wasp getting past the guards as being a problem with the bees, not wasps. Why have they not identified it as an intruder? Why are they not bodily removing it? Why is the pheromone not strong enough to deter the wasp in the first place? I would assume the hive was weak, possibly queenless, or on its way to becoming so if anything other than a forager from that colony manages to get in. I was introduced to BeeSpaceX intrances earlier this year, and have used them on my new colonies this season which do a fantastic job by allowing the bees to defend the entrance effectively, but on my older hives with regular entrances, I reduce the doorway right down to one bee space if necessary with card and tape as a temporary measure.

I do get a sense of heartsink when I read or hear of people targeting a problem with destruction or eradication rather than thinking around the topic. I am a firm believer that apiaries should be the very best examples of pollinator sanctuaries, with the wider benefits that go with that aim, and by herding our hives in to small spaces, opening them up, removing large volumes of honey just at the time when the wasps are programmed to be on the lookout for exactly that seems to be asking for trouble; persecuting wasps simply for taking advantage of our desire to take honey from bees seems ironic and misdirected. Yes – wasps can sting, but they also do a huge amount of good in the ecosystem: among other things, they are pollinators. Likewise hornets. Are our honey bees THAT delicate and precious and incapable of defending themselves from these natural predators? If so, why? That can only be down to our management. There is so much destruction of our natural environment, and implying that any native species is dispensable is surely just accelerating the problems we already know exist? Covid has shown us just how vulnerable we are to the swings and roundabouts of our choices when it comes to nature, and I can’t help thinking that the encouragement to destroy wasp’s nests by the very people who are meant to be championing insects and pollinators is deeply flawed.

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