Originally published November 2016
Hello everyone! Autumn is truly here, the trees are positively gleaming in their multi-coloured cloaks as photosynthesis grinds to a halt for the year (see Autumn Colour and Festive Greenery, Dec 2010) and wood smoke permeates the chilly, evening air. The Feathered Folk are stocking up on their carbs by stripping bushes, trees and bird-feeders alike. We H. sapiens have turned our clocks back and, as if in counterpoint to the darker evenings, the cordite-fuelled marches of the Bonfire Societies are upon us. Please remember to check those bonfire piles before torching them; our prickly ’Hogs are secreting themselves in comfortable hideaways for the colder months and preparing to sleep the winter through. The best way to avoid killing a Hedgehog is, if possible, to have the wood stacked a distance away from the site of your conflagration and build the bonfire just before setting light to it.
Whereas some animals are disappearing from our field of vision quite promptly, others seem to be making their presence known if the daylight hours continue to offer a modicum of warmth. Chief among these, certainly as far as the Quarry Wood working parties are concerned, are Wasps or Jaspers as they are fondly known as in many parts of the country.
By the end of September, Lorna and I had identified the location of two Wasps’ nests in the reserve and warned the gang to be wary. By the time our trusty band of volunteers went to work, the water had receded to such an extent we could walk on the pond bed without waders (see last month’s article) and salvage the arboreal debris. We had the opportunity also to clear the clumps of Willow growing in the soft mud, before they grew into pond-syphoning saplings. Alas, this unusually easy access to the bank on the far side of the pond proved to be more perilous than we imagined. As we dragged the branches up the bank to create a habitat pile in a nice secluded spot, we disturbed a hidden nest and two of our stalwarts found themselves surrounded by angry Wasps determined to defend their patch. Fortunately, despite receiving several stings each and taking a few days to recover, they were none the worse for their ordeal.
The species of Wasp in question is our Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) and they display typical eusocial behaviour. They live in a community, share the responsibility of rearing the young and, as our injured comrades-in-tools can testify, defend the nest en masse.
The wasp nest is a complex social structure which we can liken to a hand grenade. If the nest is disturbed, such as something knocking into it, the wasps will investigate and when satisfied that the threat is passed will return to the nest but remain in a state of heightened vigilance, often resting on the outer surface of the nest. Thus, has the pin been removed from the grenade and the nest has been Primed, a volatile and dangerous situation! Any further disturbance, such as an unwary conservationist dragging branches through the undergrowth, elicits a response which is exceptional in both its speed and ability to inflict copious pain.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a wasp sting will vouch for the fact that it is an extremely effective piece of kit. Smooth, sharp and deployed several times in rapid succession, driving deep through the skin cells to deliver the venom into the flesh. This hypodermic apparatus is a modified ovipositor, or egg laying tube, attached to a venom sac. This accounts for the fact that only female wasps have the capacity to sting, the males being helpless in general. The sense of cross-species, sympathy with this scenario is almost tangible!
A single wasp sting contains a lot less venom than that of a bee but unlike bees, wasps can sting more than once without harming themselves. Not only can they carry out a prolonged unilateral attack, the act of stinging releases a pheromone that acts as a rallying cry to its comrades whilst proclaiming that the victim is a threat and should be attacked at once. By the time Autumn arrives, wasps have been around for many months and are often infected with bacteria from crawling on dung, therefore adding to the misery of anyone stung this time of year as they deal with unpleasant, secondary infections.
There are several theories, myths and alternative treatments regarding the best way to counteract the effects of a wasp sting, the most popular being that the venom is alkaline and can be neutralised with the application of vinegar. In fact, the chemical makeup of both wasp and bee venom is complex and contains several proteins with allergenic properties that cause severe pain that lasts for many hours; it is an outstanding deterrent. Using anti-histamine is far more effective than the application of a neutralising agent as the venom chemistry is far more complicated than mere values on the pH scale. In many cases this can prevent anaphylaxis and save lives.
So, there it is, a brief glimpse at the reason Wasps are one of the most feared animals in this country. Enjoy the spectacular visual displays that Autumn offers but mind where you tread and give the highest respect to Jasper, or should that be Jessica!
Nor all my threats and warnings will avail to turn them
from their hummed devotions.
The Wasps’ Nest, James L Rosenberg
Img 1: poster from Sussex Wildlife Trust; Img 2: Wasps and nests, eye of a wasp by Cynthia Cheney used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 3: Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris by gailhampshire, used under CC2.0; Img 4: Wasp morphology, used under CC3.0; Img 5: Common Wasp by David Farquhar, used under CC2.0; Img 6-11: original Quarry Wood photography by Lorna Neville.