Welcome to part two of a series of posts looking at a range of beneficial organisms commonly known as bugs, critters or creepy crawlies that can contribute to a healthy, productive and pest free growing environment in your temperate garden. As well as identifying key species that serve as allies to our efforts in the garden, we will look at ways to attract and keep these organisms around.
Here we look at the different types of wasps we commonly interact with in the garden and although it may sound bizarre to want to encourage wasps, they do us a great service .
The wasps are insects placed in the order Hymenopteran, along with bees and ants amongst others. This is a huge order containing over 40,000 known species in Europe alone, and is the only order that we find truly social insects (termites are the exception). I have selected three superfamilies of wasps to talk about here that highlight the behavioral diversity of these organisms as solitary hunters, social beings and parasites.
Digger Wasps - Sphecoidea
The Digger Wasps are all solitary creatures, many of them burrow in sandy soils while others excavate small nests in dead wood such as tree stumps and fence posts. In the later case their presence can be detected by little piles of coarse sawdust. Some species prefer not to dig their own burrows and will nest in the old hollow stems of herbaceous perennials and garden canes. The nests typically consist of several cells in which an egg is laid and provisions are made for that egg. Unlike bees who provide nectar and pollen for their young, wasps fill their nests with meat. The wasp, using its sting, paralyses its prey rather than kills it. This is so that it will not rot before the larvae gets a chance to eat it. Prey such as caterpillars, flies, crickets, aphids and spiders all feature in the diet. Wasps do eat nectar and pollen but they do not feed this to their young.
Some species will place meat provisions in with the egg, seal the cell and fly away to build a new nest never to meet the young. Other species hang around bringing food to the larvae and continuing to feed them until they pupate, later emerging as adults. Some species in this family do not make nests at all, instead they have developed a cuckoo habit laying in the nest of other wasps.
There are many different species, some looking similar to what we most commonly think of as wasps, others entirely black lacking yellow bands. The majority of the black digger wasps provision their nests with aphids.
Image from www.chrysis.net
For citation purposes
Agnoli G.L. & Rosa P., Chrysis.net website, interim version 03-May-2011 , URL: http://www.chrysis.net/. - See more at: http://www.chrysis.net/chrysis/intro/hosts.htm#sthash.a6CH Benefits
The wasp's feeding habit is a service to the grower as it consists mainly of pest organisms. These wasps are not aggressive and will only sting if handled so do not pose a serious threat to people. The digger wasps are also known to play a role in the transfers of pollen from plant to plant whilst they feed on the nectar and pollen grains.
Habitat - Areas of bare ground and piles of old and new logs will provide nesting sites. Species rich grasslands will provide a valuable source of nectar for the adult wasps. (For more info on plants to attract wasps see below).
Herbaceous perennials with hollow stems (see below for species), can be left uncut to provide nesting sites. The hollow stems can also be cut and stacked horizontally and placed in a sheltered position. As with all organisms water is an essential requirement and necessary for nest building. A pond with a shallow edge is ideal.
True Wasps - Vespoidea
The true wasps include both solitary and social species. Several of the solitary species make their homes in our gardens frequently digging holes in vertical banks and in the old mortar of old walls. They are called the mason wasps. They're similar to the Digger wasps in that they paralyse their prey to stock their nests, generally hunting small caterpillars.
Common Wasp, Hornet and Cuckoo Wasp
The social wasps are the most familiar wasps and are considered the wasps as far as most people are concerned. They may strike fear into you as they buzz around your food on a sunny day but they are not aggressive by nature, just looking for a sweet treat. They resemble bumble bees in forming annual colonies and only the newly mated females or queens survive the winter. The queens awaken some time in April on a quest to find a new nesting site. Less than 1% of the queens manage to start a new nest. To start with, nest building is the solo project of the queen. The nest is built from paper manufactured from wood and mixed with saliva, often underground and always undercover. An old mouse hole, under a tree stump or under roof tiles are all possible locations. After the queen has built a nest containing around 6 cells she lays eggs and continues to build. When the eggs hatch the queen, as well as managing the build, hunts and feeds the grubs with chewed up caterpillars and other insects. Unlike the solitary species, the social wasps do not sting to paralyse their prey but pounce and bite. The grubs pupate and emerge as adult workers when they immediately set about enlarging the nest and take on the task of feeding their sisters. The queen kicks back and occupies herself with egg laying, filling the ever expanding nest.
The completed nest may have up to 12000 cells and during a season a colony may rear up to 25000 wasps although the average is probably nearer to 15000. Towards the end of the season, males and new queens will be produced. The queens will leave the nest, mate and hibernate until the following year. Meanwhile, the rest of the colony will die when cold weather arrives. The old nest will not be re-used.
It takes little imagination to consider the quantity of would be pests a wasp colony will consume throughout the season. The wasps themselves will also provide a small but not insignificant source of nutrients with their own bodies decomposing around the garden come late autumn. They also contribute to the pollination of the different plant species they visit when feeding.
As mentioned above the social wasps are not aggressive, however a nest too close to the house is probably going to cause discomfort and may need to be removed.
Old stumps, rodent holes, dense vegetation and old sheds or outbuildings are all suitable locations for nesting. Having piles of logs and sticks will provide a source of wood needed for nest building. Flowers from the Umbelliferae familly are commonly utilized by wasps for nectar as are many fruits such as plums and blackberries etc.(see below for plant list) I always leave a few fruits on the trees and shrubs, or left on the ground for the wasps and other insects to enjoy. Nearby water will be attractive to the wasps. A pond with a shallow edge is ideal.
True Wasps - Image from www.chrysis.net
Parasitic Wasps - Ichneumonoidea
Technically, these insects are parasitoids rather than true parasites; parasites allow their hosts to live, while parasitoids eventually bring death. Though there is great diversity in the physical appearance and life cycles of these fascinating and important insects, they have one thing in common: they use other insects to house and feed their developing young.
A common parasitic wasp from the Ichneumon family Ophion luteus
The host, typically a caterpillar (larva), is selected by scent. Once located, the wasp will lay a number of eggs inside the body of the caterpillar - some species can lay more than 100 eggs. The eggs will hatch and the grubs inside a grub will proceed to eat the organism from the inside carefully saving the vital organs until last. The grubs now pupate around what is left of the host and will emerge as adults.
Many of the insects these wasps parasitise are considered garden pests, making them an incredibly important ally for gardeners who wish to keep pest populations in check. The vast majority of these wasps are incapable of stinging humans, and since they are so very small, most gardeners aren’t even aware of their presence. Specifically these wasps help reduce the number of Large White - Pieris brassicae larvae that can cause significant damage to Brassica crops. As with other wasps they make a contribution to the pollination of plants.
Adult parasitic wasps of all species require not only host insects for their young but also nectar and pollen for energy. They lack mouth parts capable of extracting nectar from tubular flowers and so require plants with shallow, exposed nectaries to feed. Members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family , such as angelica, chervil, fennel, dill, are known to attract beneficial wasps. Other plant families that are attractive to parasitic wasps include the mint family (Lamiaceae) and the aster family (Asteraceae). (see below for plant list). Nearby water will be attractive to the wasps. A pond with a shallow edge is ideal.
Multifunctional Plants that attract Wasps
We are growing some great perennial vegetables and herbs at our nursery, plants ideally suited for a productive ecological garden grown entirely naturally. Below is a list of perennial vegetables and herbs that we have available commonly utilized by wasps and many other insects.
Thank you for this great post. I'm trying to learn more about encouraging parasitic wasps!
Recently I noticed that my thimbleberry bushes were housing parasitic wasps (gall wasps Diastrophus kincaidii, to be exact). At first, I was reeeeeeally excited, because I thought, hey, these things are probably helping keep our non-parasitc wasps at lower numbers.... Then I read more, and found they pretty much just live inside the thimbleberry bush. When they leave, they can't even eat and just mate and lay eggs. Buuuut, they are food for other parasitic wasps. I'm still trying to find out what type of parasitic wasps eat the gall wasps, and if--by having the thimbleberries to house the gall wasps--I'm providing food for other parasitic wasps, which will then help keep my stinging wasps at lower numbers. Does anyone know if a specific parasitic wasp only parasitizes one species of insect, or if they parasitize many different species?
My head hurts. I found this article (http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000179) about gall wasps and the parasites that live off of them. I had no idea how many types of herbivious wasps there are, nor how many different species live off of them. If I am understanding the article correctly, they account for 1/3rd of all animal species. I had no idea.
Now I wish I knew what feeds on the parasitic wasps that feed on the herbivious wasps. This is a food chain I had never even considered, but would love to know more about! There are so many itty bitty pieces in the puzzle of our ecosystem that we know so little about!
Wasp from the Subfamily Pemphredoninae commonly called aphid wasps can be attracted to the garden by providing them with wooden nesting blocks with 2mm to 4mm diameter holes drilled in them. Drill the holes as deep as possible without going all the way through shallow holes may get used but deeper is better. They nest in a similar fashion as mason and leafcutter bees sectioning off and stocking their tiny holes with several aphids for their larvae to eat.
When my wife and I were doing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, we were being eaten alive by the Deer Flies. One place were we set up camp virtually had no flies. I noticed that every time a fly landed on our tent a wasp would swoop down and grab it. We stayed there for 3 days to take advantage of the respite from the flies.
"Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions." ... Mark Twain
Location: Zone 7b/8a Temperate Humid Subtropical, Eastern NC, US
I have had a lot of deer flies near the back of my property in previous years.
This year since I've let a lot of native flowering plants come up, which have been attracting the beneficial wasps, their numbers have been greatly reduced. I hope by next year they may be almost completely gone.
That's a neat story John.
Striving to grow things as naturally, simply, and cheaply as possible!
My YouTube channel
Based on that list it’s wasp heaven in my yard 😄. I’ve seen quite a few different types of wasps as well. The only ones I’m concerned about are the yellow jackets. All three of us were stung last year in August and we haven’t been stung in decades.