Although the month of July isn’t quite over, today’s post is because when August really sets in, the wasps come out. It’s true you’ve seen them all year, but in August, they can become rather bothersome. I want to prepare you in case their pesteriferousness! starts early, or has started already. 

The reason they start pursuing food at our outdoor tables and patios is rather sympathetic, actually. The fact is, these nuisance wasps are workers – and males – and it’s the end of the season. They’ve served their purpose of gathering food for the larvae, so they’re no longer getting nectar rewards. Starving, they’re looking for anything sweet to eat.

In any case, that’s not the only way in which the female wasps cut off the males. They also “stuff” them into cells to keep them from poaching food (an article from 1997).

One September, my parents’ neighbour’s tree was dropping apples all over the ground. This was easy fodder for hungry wasps (and rabbits). They were peacefully intent on imbibing the fallen fruit – and, like moose in Sweden, were a little drunk too.

A similar situation happened to me last year. I had a bunch of hornets hanging around drinking sap from a wounded sumac tree. I’d used a nylon cord to keep the tree upright when it was flopping over, and it was cutting into the new bark. Hornets are big, really, really big (it was size alone that made me decide these were hornets – they were more than 1″ long), so I was worried about the potential for stings. If a stranger came onto my property and riled them up for any reason, I could imagine the scene it would create.

But honestly, they were there for food. The sooner the tree wound stopped seeping, the sooner they would go away. To hurry that to its conclusion, I hosed the tree down carefully at night, cut off the nylon cord, and cleaned the wound while the hornets were stunned. Over the course of a week, the tree stopped seeping – and the hornet numbers dwindled until they went away.

But what if they’re nesting?

Not all wasps are dangerous to people. They can be beneficial, too. In fact, some extermination websites such as this primer on how to identify common wasps have gotten a lot better about explaining “pest” creatures to the people who believe they’re doing a good thing by ridding their property of biota. By giving accurate information on how the species looks and behaves, it can alleviate unnecessary fear and squeamishness (although they still cater to the biophobic by suggesting that perhaps it’s still a good thing to remove them). I’m pleased to be able to use these sites as a resource when they play nice.

And I was one of those people who thought they’re doing a good thing by removing a paper wasp hive. Early on in my property management experience, I got a doozy of a wasp sting, and I gladly killed the offender, even though that rallied the others and I had to escape inside.

In July of 2012 (part of my blogging journey that lead to here), I hosed down a wasp’s hive at the corner of my garage door with its attendant seven or eight worker wasps. They’d built hives before in the corners of the upper windows. It wasn’t a problem, but usually people don’t let hives stick around. I wanted to be like most people – a good steward of public-facing property. So I started the hose slow, and after a few passes of knocking the nurse wasps off, I turned on the jet and knocked the hive down.

Then I stood back and watched.

The workers spent the rest of the day rescuing and recovering the larvae. With the intense, careful work they were doing, I could only presume they were pulling them out of the husk of the hive. Then they set about creating a new hive in the same place, but with fewer cells. They went right back to tending it and sealing the larvae in. Ants scavenged the rest of the non-viable hive, plus at least one wasp that appeared she didn’t survive the dowsing.

Having observed the consequences of my actions and how they worked to create a new hive, I felt bad about it afterward. After all, it was a cosmetic concern. Over the course of them living here, attaching their small hives to corners of framing, they’d been peaceful – no threatening buzzing around humans. So I decided to leave them be.

So the ones that are buzzing around your barbeque? Consider cutting them a break, as they can’t help it – they’re hungry, and at least they escaped a potentially unpleasant death at the hands of unwelcoming relatives.

I’d recommend putting out a dish of extra-sweet aromatic fruit on a table not too far from what you’re planning to eat. Don’t panic when they visit you, just lightly wave them away. If wasps can recognize individual faces (and Polistes fuscates can), they’ll probably be able to estimate the difference between food that’s being guarded by humans, and food that no one bothers them if they enjoy it.

Bonus in that the fruit could be left out for other beneficial insects to enjoy. Like bees and even butterflies, if you’re lucky.

Wasps aren’t interested in stinging you, and you can avoid being stung simply by not being a threat to them, or acting threatened by them. Most stings happen when we’re not being watchful and we stumble into nest or into a single wasp at the wrong time – like the time I grabbed a weeping willow frond, only at a location where a wasp was feeding or resting. Ow. That one hurt.

Since accidents happen, prevent them by being observant – not by killing every wasp that could invade 3-dimensional space near you.

Come fall, they’ll have lived out their natural life cycle and they won’t be bothering anyone. Try not being bothered by them now, while they’re still around.