Weird Wednesdays: Five fabulous ways to use wasps for fun and profit

While Wasps may be a nuisance to a summertime picnic, they do have their uses. (Kelly Klaas, Creative Commons)

Man, wasps (the insect kind, not the can-I-speak-to-the-manager, Yeah-my-grandma-is-German kind) get a bad rap. While they are technically lumped together with hornets, yellowjackets and other stinging nasties, there are many beneficial beasties within the suborder Apocrita.

Whether you’re chowing down on produce, trying to discover a way to take notes or simply plotting against your enemies, here are a few eye-opening ways wasps are a part of your day- to-day life-- and a few ways to integrate them on your own!

Figs
If you’ve eaten figs, be they in fruit, jam or Newton form, chances are you’ve eaten a very old, very dried out wasp carcass. Hey, it’s extra protein!

How did the wasp get there? Glad you asked! First, some plant biology.

Most fruits are produced when a pollinated flower grows a fleshy pod that surrounds or embeds the fertilized seed, which are then distributed by birds or other animals when they ingest the tasty fruit and then bury, drop or excrete it out somewhere else.

Not fig trees. They jump the gun on the ‘grow a fruit thing’ by creating most of the structure of the fig BEFORE it’s pollinated. The flowers themselves are located inside this structure, accessible only through a small opening in the proto-fruit. If these flowers aren’t pollinated, thenthe fig remains hard and unripe.

Enter the wasp-- the fig wasp, Pegoscapus, to be exact (each species of fig has its own species of pollinating wasp.) The females, attracted by the scent of fresh fig flowers, fly over and wriggle into the opening, often losing a few parts in the process. They lay a few eggs, pollinate the flowers with the remnants of the pollen still clinging to them from their own hatching, and then die. The grubs emerge and mature as the fig ripens, exiting the fig and leaving the mummifiedcorpse of their mother behind.

That’s right-- every fig you eat carries the weight of a wasp death upon it. Think about it next time you’re at a fancy cheese party.
 

Pest Control
Farming is hard work. You’re essentially growing stuff for people to eat that everything else wants to eat: be it animals, bacteria or the constant horde of caterpillars munching their way through your hard-cultivated crop.

Pesticides are only a temporary solution; they leave behind toxic residues, pose a risk to farm workers and consumers and can severely impact populations of beneficial insects like bees.

Not only that, but it only takes a few generations (sometimes spanning a single season) for many bugs to develop a resistance.

Wasps provide a unique solution: preying on harmful crop pests by parasitizing them. Predator wasps such as Tiphia vernalis and Cotesia find a lovely nasty, such as the root-devouring Japanese Oriental Beetle or the cabbage-munching Imported Cabbage Worm, and set their kids up for life by laying their eggs inside the bugs’ larvae. As the grubs grow, so do the wasps’ offspring, until they grow large enough to emerge from its unfortunate host, a la “Alien.” The host dies, leaving the crop unharmed, and the wasp larvae pupate and emerge before starting the cycle over again.

It may be gross, but remember: it’s a pesticide-free, GMO-free, 100% organic way to keep unwanted dinner guests off your veggies. Next time you enjoy some coleslaw, thank a wasp.

Curing cancer
A wasp sting can send you to the emergency room-- however, if you’re in the hospital for cancer treatment, they might just be your saving grace. Certain compounds in wasp stings have been found to target cancer cells of the bladder and prostate, and even drug-resistant leukemia.


Other studies have shown that certain venoms have antimicrobial properties, making them a viable alternative to antibiotics when a paticular bacterial strain is resistant, especially in the case of hepatitis B (no pun intended!).


The compounds work in tandem by marking the baddie cells for death and opening up small holes in the bacteria/cancer cell membrane. A second compound will then tear through the cell like a dog on a water balloon, leaving healthy cells untouched. It’s a promising medical future-- though the jury is still out on whether it’ll sting.

Projectile weaponry
Got a stubborn city under siege? Need to smoke out an enemy but forgot your matches at home? Do you think sending someone a glitter bomb is a total weaksauce move?


Never fear! Wasps are here! And by here, I mean they’re in a clay container, angrily buzzing, ready to load into the trebuchet/catapult/sling/cannon of your choice, at the unfortunate victims of your choice.


Entomological warfare (using insects as weapons) has been around for a while. I mentioned using rhododendron-laced honey to drive soldiers mad in a previous column; however, the bugs themselves may have been used as weapons.

Certain section of the Old Testament and the Torah mention “the hornet” being used to drive out the Canaanites. This may have alluded to the repelling army using wasp nests, or clay jars filled with wasps, to attack the enemy, most likely by flinging it over a walled city.

This is purely theory, so maybe you shouldn’t try this at home.

Historical breakthroughs
Paper as we know it was invented because of wasps. If it weren’t for wasps, you wouldn’t be able to read this story printed in the paper right now! (If you’re reading this online, then computers wouldn’t have been invented, since there wouldn’t have been any punch cards. Go figure!)

The old legend is that a Chinese man by the name of Cai Lun noticed a wasp’s nest in his garden, sometime around 100 BCE. Inspired by the crafty critters, he used wood pulp and old nets to make his own paper, launching a new era (and a new headache for those of us who hate paperwork).

While the techniques for Chinese paper remained mostly unknown to Europeans, it was a Frenchman named René Réaumur who came upon the same idea nearly 2000 years later, in 1719. European ‘paper’ (if you could call it that) was made of cotton rags and there was a massive shortage going on with the printing boom to the point where it became illegal to bury a corpse in cotton rags.

René was pondering this when he went on a nature walk and noticed a wasp nest, made from wood fiber.

“If wasps can made paper from wood fiber,” he said, “why can’t we?”

Though the idea didn’t take off until the 1850s, it was still the idea that launched a thousand stacks-- and felled a thousand trees.

Overall, wasps are our friends. Sure, they might sting us. They might feast on our soda and sweet picnic treats. They may hate you, occasionally. But, really, we humans wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did without ‘em. So, next time you see a wasp buddy, give it a high-five! Er . . . maybe not.

In any case, give your thanks from a respectable distance—and stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.