What's happened to all the wasps this year?
JUST the other day an old friend said to me – what's happened to the wasps this year? It seems only yesterday I was telling her to sit still at a picnic last September as she started batting the pesky creatures as they bumbled around in their last-of-the-summer-wine way. That time she'd asked me "What's the point of wasps anyway?"
Here at the Trust we have every sympathy with wasp-phobia over stings, and know how painful they can be – but always point out that for most of the summer the wasp leaves us alone as it does its job of hunting ferociously for flies, aphids, caterpillars and other invertebrates to feed its larvae, which makes the wasp an important insect-controlling predator. And in that fragile balance of the chain of life, this is a vital role, but one which in this astonishingly soggy summer, seems to have faltered. The majority of insects will not (or cannot) fly in wet weather – not only does rain damage their wings, but the flowers close up, so there's nothing for them to feed on, and if the smaller insects aren't flying there's likewise nothing for larger insects, bats and birds to feed on.
So the fact that we haven't been hassled by late summer wasps this year is an uneasy indicator of the problems this rain-soaked summer has brought with it. The apple and wild damson trees at our Folly Farm Centre have barely fruited, because the torrential rains of early spring prevented the flight of pollinating insects, and the lack of insects meant that birds had problems with their summer broods. At Folly Farm the resident swallows tried to make nests but failed because it was too cold and wet and who wants to have babies if there's nothing to feed them on?
It's also been a really poor year for butterflies which had no sunshine hours in April and May and June when the first brood needs sunshine hours to fly round and find a mate, and lay eggs for the second and third broods brood which would be hatching now. It has to be warm and sunny for most butterflies to venture forth.
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There is a bit of hope however – it's now September, and the swallows at Folly Farm have at last got young chicks, and if the rest of this month and October remain fine, they'll have a chance of feeding up and making their long journey back to Africa. There are also signs that small tortoiseshell butterflies are hatching in large numbers and painted lady butterflies have successfully migrated across the channel into Britain. One of my colleagues said wryly, well it's been a great summer for slugs and earthworms – so blackbirds, robins and badgers are thriving.
It just goes to show how everything in nature is inter-connected – that true web of life without which our very existence is impossible. And if I see a woozy wasp in the next few weeks, I'll be sure to give it the thumbs up, and say, keep up the good work, we don't want to see the back of you yet!