Tag Archives: wasps

Chrysis inaequidens, the jewelled cuckoo wasp

Chrysis inaequidens, the jewelled cuckoo wasp

Look at this gorgeous North American solitary wasp (click the image for a bigger version if you like). Now wonder about its name – why is it named after a bird? After all, cuckoos are hardly known for their brightly coloured plumage. The answer lies in its lifestyle. Cuckoo wasps are so named because they breed by surreptitiously laying an egg in the nest of another (usually) wasp or bee – just as cuckoos do to other birds. Then the young cuckoo wasp larva hatches out, eats the larva of the host animal, and then enjoys the provisions the mother has left behind for her own offspring. From the cell emerges not the expected bee or wasp, but another species entirely – the adult cuckoo wasp.

The cuckoo wasps (and there are many species, including quite a few in the UK) have some special adaptations to help them do this. They have a really long egg-laying ovipositor, that can extend telescopically to let them insert an egg deep into a host cell. They also have the ability to curl up into a protective ball, like some woodlice do; with strong armour on the back, and gaps underneath where they can tuck their legs and antennae safely. It must be a hazardous life being a parasite – those host bees and wasps can bite and sting!


Wasp scissors are safe and simple.

In days gone by, we hear from time to time, people used to make their own entertainment. Indeed they did; and in 1946 a slim tome was published by Wm. A Bagley called ‘Things to make and do’. The descriptive powers of Mr Bagley set out to inspire the youth of post-war Britain to engage in such frugal but beneficial pastimes as ‘Whittling a bunch of keys’, ‘More whittling: a curious tripod’ and even ‘To create some bottled mysteries’.

Things to Make and Do, Wm. A. Bagley, 1946

Most striking to me  though, in the table of contents, was the Wasp Scissors. Bagley explains the purpose of his Wasp Scissors with the following arresting scenario:

During late summer days the following comedy, or something like it, will be frequently performed at picnics, camps and other alfresco meals. A fat wasp will land on the jam pot and everyone (especially the ladies) get excited. Father, attempting to swipe the wasp with a rolled-up newspaper, knocks the milk over into the sugar. The wasp, now thoroughly alarmed, stings someone, and whilst the sting is being attended to, about a dozen other wasps get stuck in the jam. Mother thereupon scoops out the contaminated jam, and so wastes a lot.

Safe and Simple

Now, if you only had the pair of wasp scissors shown in the drawing you would not have all this bother. One little nip, and the wasp is quickly, cleanly, and humanely extinguished. You can make a pair in one evening at very little cost. They sell very well, too, among friends and neighbours, or at sales, etc.

You want to see the wasp scissors? Of course you do!

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Four massive wasps

We heard you wanted to see a picture of four massive wasps. So here they are.
Four massive wasps on somebody's hand

These appear to be very dark specimens of Vespa mandarinia, the Asian giant hornet of which more here. I’m not even sure these ones are alive – it would be hard to get them to sit like that naturally, and they all seem to have extended stings which is unusual in life, although quite often happens to insects after death.

The Wasp Piñata

Wasps! Urgh! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing! Well, you’d think so by the amount of cursing they get around this time of year. People really don’t like wasps, but wasps can’t resist coming to have a look at – and taste of – the interesting things people like to do outside. So conflict inevitably ensures… or at least a lot of flapping about and yelling. But something the Ranger recently spotted at a local market just might hold a solution for the age-old impasse between irate human and yellow-jacketed hymenopteran.


What is this bizarre thing? And what has it to do with wasps? Continue reading

This is a ******* wasp!

Regular readers will know how the Ranger has an uneasy respect for waspkind. At this time of the year it’s easy to forget our yellowjacketed friends, but don’t be fooled: they are sleeping, awaiting the summer.

The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia
The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia

I was entertained to find, whilst reading Imgur’s ‘Best pictures of 2010′ one wasp-related graphic which I decided not to use earlier this year as, well, it’s a bit profane. In fact, very profane. But I enjoyed it so much I thought that you could probably make the decision for yourself. So if you don’t like rude words, don’t click through. This is a wasp (NSFW)


Beewolf buzzing Ryde once more

In 2007 The Ranger wrote about his local colony of Philanthus triangulum, the European beewolf. Sadly, in 2008 the fearsome little things were nowhere to be found – perhaps they despaired of the dismal weather. In 2009 too I searched without success, but inspired by Ian Boyd’s find in Newchurch I recently went back for a second look at the sandy banks on Ryde seafront. This time sharp eyed Cat spotted the tell-tale signs of excavations a little way away. It seems that the original site had been covered by drifting sand over winter and now seemed too sandy even for these sand-loving creatures. But not far off they were hard at it, murdering bees industriously.

Philanthus triangulum, Ryde © Cat James

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What is the purpose of wasps?

What use are wasps? A perennial question. “Why did God make wasps?” is even asked as a theological poser – usually as a rhetorical question that can’t be answered. It is a question that comes with its own implied criticism – after all, nobody would ask “what is the purpose of butterflies?” (zero Google results at time of writing, vs. 838 for “what is the purpose of wasps?”). The suggestion is that as wasps are no use to humans, their existence is puzzling. A rather human-centric view. It also goes without saying that there are far, far more mysterious creatures than wasps upon this earth – and they don’t all seem to benefit humans either.

The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia
The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia


Anyway – now wasps do have a purpose. What a relief! Entomologist Joe Lewis, and agricultural engineer Glen Rains at at the University of Georgia have devised a pleasingly low-tech method to use wasps to sniff out all sorts of chemicals.

“So far, they’ve been able to detect, to some level, any chemical that we’ve trained them to,” Rains tells DBIS. Training is simple and quick. The wasps are fed sugar water. At the same time they’re introduced to a smell for 10 seconds. The process is repeated two more times. Lewis says, “We can train a wasp within a matter of 10 to 15 minutes.” For example, a set of wasps is trained to detect the smell of coffee. When they are put into a simple container, a tiny web camera watches their actions. When the smell of orange is pumped into the pipe, nothing. But when it’s coffee, the wasps crowd around the smell. So far, Rains and Lewis have not found anything the wasps cannot be trained to detect. They can be trained to detect everything from drugs to human remains to fungi on crops. They could one day even be able to detect deadly diseases like cancer.

This is obviously pretty useful – and pretty easy. Watch out, dogs – wasps are on your tails! See a video demonstration of this technique in action here.

Invasion of the giant hornets… or is it?

There’s a buzz going about… and it’s created by a load of hornets. Regular readers will know about the Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia, which has been causing a bit of debate. Quite a few people emailed The Ranger or posted to the blog, worried (or interested) that they might have found a specimen of V. mandarinia in their house or garden. One of these was Ranger reader Dave Wall, who said:

I have just seen a massive hornet in my garden. It was hovering just above an ants nest. It only stayed around for a few seconds before flying off. I have seen ordinary hornets fairly commonly in and around our house, but nothing like this. It was not the European Hornet ! I would estimate it to be about 60mm in length. It’s bright yellow head and huge abdomen were the most striking features. We are in a very rural fruit growing area in Warwickshire.

The Ranger rather optimistically requested photos, and splendidly, Dave was able to comply. A few days later he gamely captured one of the beasts and took some great photographs – here’s one:

European hornet (c) Dave Wall

Dave Wall’s hornet – the ruler has been added in from another part of the photo, but the scale is correct.

We can see from Dave’s ruler that the body length of this creature is a somewhat less scary 35mm, which is well within the range of the European hornet V. crabro. Indeed, this is no Asian monster but our native European hornet, and as such is little to worry about. If you need convincing perhaps the simplest way to tell them apart is the colour of the thorax (the bit of the body between the head and the abdomen) which is very clearly brown in UK hornets (less so in other European races), but definitely black in the Asian one. This one, as you see, is quite gingery-brown. This is a worker although it’s on the big side. Queens and workers have seven segments to the abdomen, whereas males have only six. The queen can be up to 50mm in length, so quite possibly that’s what Dave saw the first time. The European hornet is actually less aggressive than the common wasp, and although it looks fearsome, is less likely to sting. And although it will nest in urban and suburban situations, it prefers the countryside. So you don’t need to be too worried, if you leave them alone they will probably not bother you and go away. Interestingly, it’s not just The Ranger who has had these enquiries. The Ranger’s correspondent Stuart Hine, who is manager of the Natural History Museum’s Insect Identification Service, explains more:

The Insect Identification Service at the Natural History Museum is receiving unprecedented enquires from the public about the insect. Most people are concerned that they are seeing the giant Oriental hornet or the Asian ‘killer’ hornet, probably due to recent media attention these species have received. But this is not the case. What people are seeing are queens of our native European hornet, Vespa crabro, our largest species of social wasp. Queen hornets are formidable looking insects with a body length of up to five centimetres. In the UK emerging queens are not usually seen until about early-mid May. However, the unseasonable mild spring we have experienced this year appears to have roused them from their slumber earlier with the first sightings in early March.

You can also see a great video of Stuart talking about this, with some (dead) examples of both the European and Asian hornets. Read this post if you think you have got an Asian Hornet.