The world’s 75,000 species of wasp are in dire need of a major PR overhaul, according to a prominent entomologist.
In a study published in the journal Ecological Entomology, Seirian Sumner from University College London in the UK reveals that the negative way in which wasps are regarded runs deep. This is true not only for the general public – which overwhelmingly sees bees as valuable but wasps as dangerous pests – but also among scientists.
To make his first finding, Sumner quizzed 748 people from 46 countries regarding their attitudes towards bees and wasps. The latter, he discovered, were universally disliked – a position he attributes to a combination of a general low-level interest in nature and the consequent lack of understanding of the important role of wasps as pollinators.
The same excuses, however, could not be made for professional entomologists who, by definition, are pretty clued in regarding what insects get up to. In this cohort, however, Sumner discovered that anti-wasp bias was, if anything, even more pronounced.
The researcher sampled 908 published papers – going back 37 years for works on bees and 16 for wasp research. He found that an overwhelming 97.6% of them concerned bees. A similar bias was found in 2543 conference abstracts.
The prejudice, the author suggests, arises because people (even entomologists) are most likely to encounter one of the 67 species of social wasps, some of which tend to nest in or near houses – or popular picnic spots – and display aggressive, or at least annoying, behaviours.
These species still have valuable roles to play in the environment, but also dominate human perception of wasps. The overwhelming majority of species are solitary insects and are rarely encountered by the public.
The general dislike of wasps, however, is not a position arrived at primarily by reason. For instance, Sumner found that most people rated them as more dangerous than bees, despite the fact that the stings from each are similarly painful.
“It’s clear we have a very different emotional connection to wasps than to bees – we have lived in harmony with bees for a very long time, domesticating some species, but human-wasp interactions are often unpleasant as they ruin picnics and nest in our homes,” says Sumner.
“Despite this, we need to actively overhaul the negative image of wasps to protect the ecological benefits they bring to our planet. They are facing a similar decline to bees and that is something the world can’t afford.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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