Social perception affects social insects: Why Canadians kill wasps and keep bees

Dr. Brian Van Hezewijk has a wasp’s nest outside his bathroom window, and he intends to leave it there.

An invasive species researcher and member of the Entomological Society of British Columbia, Van Hezewijk has had wasps nests in his backyard for around 20 years. In that time, he has developed a different relationship with the insects than most Canadians. 

Initially, he built insect houses around his yard in Victoria, B.C., in the hopes that bumblebees would move in. In the first year, no bees came. Instead, Hezewijk got wasps. 

“I’ve had these wasps’ nests living in a hollow railing on my porch for several years [and] nobody in the family has ever been stung,” Van Hezewijk told The Pigeon in an interview. “When visitors come, [they say], ‘Oh my God, why don’t you get rid of those?'”

Why preserve wasps’ nests?

Though it may be common to get rid of a wasps nest in your backyard, Van Hezewijk doesn’t think it’s necessary. 

Van Hezewijk’s yard is host to a species of wasp called the European paper wasp, known to be more docile than Yellowjackets. In his time observing the creatures, the scientist has found that they are skilled at hunting garden pests such as caterpillars. The wasps in his yard serve a useful purpose.

“You can sit and watch them when you are sitting on the deck. We don’t bother them, and they just kind of get along.”

There are tens of thousands of species of wasps in the world. The majority of them live alone and are parasitic to other creatures like grubs and caterpillars. Social waspsthose that live in nests, such as yellowjacketsserve a mostly predatory purpose. In many cases, predation controls the population of nearby crop-eating creatures. 

Van Hezewijk has found in his research that forest-dwelling yellowjacket wasps are adept at finding prey, even if it has been hidden by humans. 

“Usually within a day we’d come back and almost all of [the prey insects] would be found and carried away, back to the nest.”

A European paper wasp nest being started in a birdhouse.
A European paper wasp nest being started in a birdhouse. Photo: Dr. Brian Van Hezewijk

Dr. Seirian Sumner, a Reader at University College London, believes that most people don’t properly understand the function of wasps.

 In 2018, along with other researchers, she published an article for the Royal Entomological Society, titled, ‘Why we love bees and hate wasps.’ The article included a survey of over 700 people on their perception of bees, wasps, and other insects. 

The scientists asked people to rate the value of wasps and bees based on how they thought the insects served the ecosystem, using an Ecosystem Service Value, or ESV.

In their findings, they reported that, “people understand the ESV of bees even if they do not have a strong interest in nature; however, only those with a high interest in nature are well informed about the ESV of wasps.”

Sumner hopes that people will come to understand wasps as much as they understand bees. 

“Bees are already in our good books because we like their honey,” Sumner said. “It’s only quite recently that we’ve, on a layman’s level, come to have a general appreciation of bees for their role as pollinators.”

Sumner’s study also found that wasps are much less studied than bees, with over 95% of research sampled focused primarily on bees. 

As a result of this research gap, Sumner said there is not enough known about wasps’ role in controlling crop pests such as caterpillars, an insect which often targets maize and sugarcane.

According to a 2019 article from Forbes, bees contribute “between $235 and $577 billion (US)” to global food production. This includes both the value of honey and the value of pollination services.

“It is possible to put a monetary value on the economic value of pollination by bees,” Sumner said. “We should be able to put the same economic value on the pest-control value of insects like wasps, [but] we can’t because there simply isn’t enough research.”

A western yellowjacket in the process of pollination.
A western yellowjacket in the process of pollination. Photo: Dr. Brian Van Hezewijk

Victoria MacPhail is a Ph.D. candidate at York University in Ontario. She is part of a group called Bumble Bee Watch, an organization that uses an app and the help of citizen scientists to study bumblebees. 

“Bumblebees are one of our better-known pollinators in terms of research,” MacPhail said. “They are very easy to keep [in] people’s interests and captivate their attention.”

She says that after spending over fifteen years researching bees, she has seen the insect’s reputation improve. 

“When I first started researching pollinators, people didn’t really know what a bee was,” said MacPhail. “When they knew about bees, they’d talk about killer bees.”

MacPhail is referring to Africanized Honey bees, which caused concern for decades due to the fear that they were more aggressive than the European Honey bee. 

More recently, beekeepers have found that Africanized bees in the Americas are not as much of a threat as originally thought. 

MacPhail says that much like native bumblebees, native wasp species are valuable parts of Canadian ecosystems.

“They are some of the unsung heroes of our backyards, and parks and ecosystems. Although we may have a negative perception of wasps, it is mostly unfounded.”

So what about beekeepers?

According to Statistics Canada, between 2015 and 2017 the number of beekeepers in the country rose from 8,615 to 10,589. Though the number has since dropped to 10,334 in 2019, there has been a continued growth of interest in beekeeping. 

Bob Fosdick is in his seventh season of beekeeping. As the president of the Capital Region Beekeeper’s Association in Victoria, B.C., he has seen his club grow exponentially in the last five years.

“We went from, historically, a small group of seasoned beekeepers with a handful of new people each year, to a club that went from 50 to 200,” Fosdick said. “Suddenly three quarters of those people were new to beekeeping and looking for support.”

Though Fosdick thinks it is great that people seem to have a newfound interest in bees, he worries that inexperienced beekeepers may cause problems for the insects.

At peak season, each of Fosdick’s hives has between 50,000-75,000 bees. He said that as a beekeeper he is responsible for managing the bees’ homes. He does not take the responsibility lightly. 

“The biggest enemy of a bee is a beekeeper […] All of us, at some point, do dumb things.”

Fosdick does not want to discourage people from learning about beekeeping, but he encourages those with an interest in bee preservation to find other avenues of support.

“People are keen to have bees,” Fosdick said. ” [But they] can probably benefit pollinators more by planting pollinator-friendly plants in their yards, on their boulevards, and in the city in general.” 

Fosdick thinks that people divide honeybees, bumblebees, and wasps into three distinct groups: beneficial, neutral, or harmful. He says that when people find a beehive in their yard they either call a beekeeper or wait out the season. If people find wasps, they call an exterminator. Like Van Hezewijk, Fosdick thinks that destroying a nest isn’t always necessary. 

“Let’s think about the wasps like the bumblebees. If we can, let’s just leave them alone.”

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