Scientists say wasps don’t deserve their bad reputation

19 Sep 2018

Image: Denis Vesely/Shutterstock

Scientists say a lack of understanding about the importance of wasps is a major reason why so many people dislike the insects.

In the last number of years, the plight of bees and their importance in our ecosystem has become a popular public campaign. Many people are now making changes in order to protect the insects. The same cannot be said for universally derided wasps, but researchers say this is an unfair view.

According to a study from University College London (UCL) published in Ecological Entomology, the important role the insects play is fundamentally misunderstood by the public.

Negative associations

The researchers surveyed 750 people from 46 countries, asking participants to rate insects on a scale from minus five (a very negative emotion) to plus five (very positive emotion). While the majority of responses for bees were plus three or higher, it was the complete opposite for wasps, with the vast majority rating their feelings minus three or less.

The most common words associated with the latter were ‘sting’, ‘annoying’ and ‘dangerous’, while words linked to bees were more positive and included ‘honey’, ‘flowers’ and ‘pollination’.

What’s missing here, researchers say, is the knowledge that wasps are just as crucial to the environment as bees and also pollinate flowers. Dr Seirian Sumner of UCL led the research and said that the bad press the insects get is putting them in danger. “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.”

Sumner added: “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.”

Neglected by science

The research team also found that wasps are an unpopular choice of insect for scientists to study, which means their negative image receives little help from scientific study that could help to communicate their positive role in the ecosystem.

Sumner analysed research papers and conference presentations over the last 37 years and 16 years, respectively. She found that only 2.4pc of 908 papers since 1980 were wasp publications, compared to 97.6pc (886 papers) bee publications. Of the 2,543 conference abstracts on bees or wasps from the last 20 years, 81.3pc were on bees.

Respondents who expressed a personal interest in nature were more likely to understand the role wasps play as natural pest controllers. Butterflies received the highest level of positive emotion overall, followed by bees, flies and wasps in last place.

Co-author of the study, Dr Alessandro Cini of UCL and the University of Florence, said: “Global concern about the decline of pollinators has resulted in a phenomenal level of public interest in, and support of, bees. It would be fantastic if this could be mirrored for wasps but it would need a complete cultural shift in attitudes towards wasps. The first step on the way to this would be for scientists to appreciate wasps more and provide the required research on their economic and societal value, which will then help the public understand the importance of wasps.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects