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Unveiling the Secret Heroes: Wasps Are Awesome Pollinators

JUNE 9, 2023
yellow wasp on a flower
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yellow wasp on a flower

This June, we are diving into the world of pollinators all month long to celebrate Pollinator Week (June 18 - 24). When we think of pollinators, we tend to focus on the familiar faces: bees and butterflies. However, there's an incredible group of insects that often go unnoticed in the pollination game – wasps. Yes, you read that right! Despite their fearsome reputation, wasps play a vital role as pollinators and are one of our planet's most beneficial insects. In this post, we'll explore the fascinating world of wasp pollination, debunk some common wasp misconceptions, and discover the important contributions they make to our ecosystems.

small wasp on yellow flowers

The Buzz About Wasps

When we think of stinging insects, wasps and bees are the first groups that come to mind. It's absolutely true that both bees and wasps sting, but it's important to differentiate between these two groups as folks tend to lump them together. While they may share some similarities, wasps and bees have distinct characteristics and behaviors.

Wasps typically have smooth, shiny and slender bodies with brighter colors, while bees are often fuzzier and more robust (think honey bees or bumblebees). Critically, wasps have very slender waists and elongated bodies compared to the rounder and broader shape of bees. At a functional level, bees and wasps play surprisingly similar roles as key pollinators; however, even pollinating wasps tend to "focus" more on pest control. Another way to think about it is this: wasps like a diet of veggies (i.e. pollen and flower nectar) and meat, while bees are essentially exclusively vegetarian.

jewel wasp on wooden board

The world of wasps is incredibly diverse, with over 30,000 known wasp species worldwide. Wasps belong to the order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and ants. While some wasps are known for their sting, most wasp species are entirely harmless to humans and play essential roles in ecosystems. Wasps come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, showcasing a remarkable range of adaptations for different ecological niches. From the delicate and solitary orchid wasps to, spooky and fascinating parasitic wasps, to the industrious and social paper wasps, each species has its own amazing traits and makes its own ecological contributions.

Native wasps are critical components of our ecosystems and participate in vital ecological processes. Wasps pollinate many of the same plants that our bees do, but also offer natural pest control (like policing invasive Emerald Ash Borer) and help to cycle nutrients within their environment. Like native bees wasps have co-evolved with native plants, forming intricate relationships that benefit both parties. Some native wasps have specific preferences for certain plants, ensuring effective and targeted pollination. By supporting native plant species in our gardens and landscapes, we create opportunities for native wasps to thrive and fulfill their ecological roles. Recognizing and valuing the importance of native wasps enhances the overall health and resilience of our natural habitats.

wasp on pink rose

How Wasps Pollinate Flowers: A Hidden Partnership

Some wasps act as accidental pollinators. As wasps go about their daily activities, they visit flowers in search of nectar or insect prey. and tiny pollen grains get caught on their bodies, particularly on their bristly hairs. When they move on to the next flower, they transport pollen grains allowing for cross-pollination to occur. While the main purpose of a wasp's visit may not be pollination, they passively transfer pollen the contribute directly to the reproductive success of many plant species.

wasp with insect prey on a spruce tree

Wasps As Predators: Your Yard's First Line of Defense

In addition to their pollination role, predatory wasps serve as highly valuable regulators of our yards and ecosystems. While adult wasps mainly eat nectar and pollen, many wasp species also eat insects. This means that wasps will naturally control pests, including insect larvae, grubs, aphids, and flies that can damage your plants. Wasps are equipped with fearsome jaws and stingers primarily to paralyze and capture their prey. They then transport the paralyzed insects back to their nests to feed their young larvae. In this way, most wasps can act as highly effective defenders for your yard, and will help to control garden pests, pollinate plants and protect crops. By embracing a diverse ecosystem that harnesses the natural pest control abilities of wasps, you can reduce the need for harmful chemical pesticides in your garden and take a more sustainable approach to pest management in your yard.

Unique Pollination Strategies

Certain plants have evolved specific adaptations to attract and utilize wasps as their primary pollinators. One example is the fig tree, which relies on a specific group of wasps (unsurprisingly, called Fig Wasps) for its pollination. Fig wasps have a symbiotic relationship with the fig tree. A female fig wasps enters the fig's unique flower structure to lay eggs in a very particular part of the flower and inadvertently transfers pollen in the process of laying eggs. The fig wasp larvae mature inside of this special structure and the fig tree can still produce healthy, seed-containing figs separately. (So, no! The crunchy bits inside of figs are not wasps, they are indeed just seeds!)

Similarly, some orchids have evolved to resemble female wasps in appearance and scent, attracting male wasps that unknowingly assist in pollination while attempting to mate with the deceptive flowers.

adult fig wasp

Encouraging Coexistence: Wasp-Friendly Practices

When it comes to wasps, many people immediately think of painful stings and aggressive behavior. When it comes to the highly social wasps, such as some notorious paper wasp species (looking at you, Bald-faced Hornet!), this reputation is often justified. However, not all wasp species are created equal in terms of their propensity to sting.

Some species are far less likely to sting or pose risks to humans. Examples of non-aggressive wasps include (but are not limited to) the solitary digger wasps (such as the Crabronidae) and cosmopolitan potter wasps (Eumeninae). These wasps may look fearsome, but they are more focused on their essential roles as pollinators and pest controllers than on human interactions. By familiarizing yourself with these non-aggressive species, you can develop a better understanding and appreciation for the diverse world of wasps without undue fear or concern.

potter wasp with a pest grub

Creating suitable nesting sites is crucial for supporting beneficial wasps in your garden. Many wasp species rely on specific habitats for nesting and reproduction. Some wasps nest in the ground, while others prefer hollow stems, wood crevices, or even abandoned burrows. By providing a variety of nesting opportunities, such as leaving exposed patches of bare loose soil, allowing hollow plant stems to remain intact, or installing artificial nesting structures, you can encourage beneficial wasps to establish their homes in your garden. These nesting sites not only provide shelter for wasps but also promote population growth and contribute to the overall ecological balance of your landscape. Ironically, bee hotels are often filled with solitary wasp nests, as many of the cavity nesting wasp species love to use those types of structures to set up shop.

bee hotel in a field

Minimizing pesticide use is also crucial for safeguarding the populations of beneficial wasps and maintaining a healthy ecosystem for other species. Pesticides, even those marketed as targeting specific pests, can have unintended negative impacts on non-target insects, including wasps. Instead of relying on pesticides, explore alternative pest control methods such as integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, which focus on prevention, cultural practices, and natural predators - like wasps! - to manage pests. By reducing or eliminating pesticide use, you create a safer environment for both wasps and other beneficial insects, ensuring the overall health and biodiversity of your garden.

wildflower meadow with coneflowers and vervain

Planting for Wasps: Native Plants to Attract and Support

If you're looking to create a pollinator-friendly garden that welcomes not just bees and butterflies but also our wasps, incorporating native plant species is key. Native plants have coevolved with local wildlife, including wasps, and provide essential food sources and habitats for these beneficial insects. When selecting plants for your garden, consider species that produce nectar and pollen-rich flowers that are attractive to wasps. Some excellent choices include those species of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), and mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) appropriate to your eco-region. These plant groups not only offer abundant resources for adult wasps but also support the survival of their offspring by often providing shelter and food for insect prey. By incorporating these native plants into your garden, you'll not only create a vibrant and diverse landscape but also contribute to the conservation of these important pollinators.

paper wasp on goldenrod flowers

Conclusion

As we wrap up this journey into the world of wasps as pollinators, we hope you've gained a newfound appreciation for these often-misunderstood insects. Wasps, with their unique behaviors and relationships with plants, contribute significantly to the pollination of native species. By embracing and supporting native plants in our gardens and landscapes, we can create havens that welcome and sustain these incredible pollinators. Together, let's celebrate the unsung heroes of the pollinator world and work towards a more pollinator-friendly future.

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