Please stop sharing the ‘wasps are jerks’ memes.

I really try not to use this blog to jump on the soap-box too often but for some reason the internet has decided that wasps are the Martin Shkrelis of the insect world, and I think this needs to stop.

Typical examples of 'wasps are jerks memes'. The picture on the left was originally posted here in 2011, while the picture on the right is a product of Henry Kane farms, a humor site.

Typical examples of ‘wasps are jerks memes’. The picture on the left was originally posted here in 2011, while the picture on the right is a product of Henry Kane farms, a humor site.

From a mechanistic standpoint, this joke is really just lazy and uncreative. Jokes typically incorporate some element of tragedy, preceded by a misleading setup. In this case the setup is a scientific looking chart, followed by a statement telling you that hating this particular animal is OK because…well, it’s not a bee.

The standard defense of these memes is that they’re just harmless humor, and I reject that completely. As we’ve learned from The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, humor is something which is actually taken pretty seriously, and people tend to joke about stuff they already kind of believe.

There are also examples of jokes which took on a life of their own, and end up hurting people. The best example of which is from the 2004 movie Sideways. The main joke of the movie, that Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) hates merlot, is actually meant as a criticism of the wine industry. His prized possession is a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, which is a wine blend made with 41% merlot grapes. Unfortunately, this joke went over the audience’s heads and sales of Merlot wound up plummeting which hurt a lot of grape growers.

Also, people take the ‘Kill it with fire‘ idea waaaay too seriously. Dozens of fires are started every year by people attempting to kill insects and spiders with fire. So again, jokes can have real consequences.

So let’s talk about all the reasons this meme is terrible, and why it needs to go away yesterday.

The joke relies on false assumptions about bees

Bees do produce a lot of agricultural products,  worth hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Honeybees in particular also produce some products which are used by a lot of people, ranging from honey and wax to pollen and royal jelly. So bees are good for us.

The problem is that by focusing on honeybees, it gives the wrong idea of why bees are important. Honeybees are immensely important to agriculture, but less important for the environment. The native bees, Andrenids, Halictids, Bombus, are the ones which have evolved in this environment and pollinate a lot of native plants. Honeybees compete with these guys, and may even play a role spreading diseases to the wild bee populations.

As for whether honeybees are reluctant to sting, this is a harder one to talk about because statistics for bee stings tend to lump all Hymenopteran stings into one category. Identification by sting victims and doctors is unreliable at best, so this isn’t very surprising. The CDC data, highlighted below, can be found here.

Hymenopteran deaths

Speaking from experience, having worked with both honey bees and Polistes wasps, I can tell you that honey bees aren’t exactly reluctant to sting. Standing in front of the hive, wearing certain perfumes, wearing dark clothes or using certain shampoos can provoke them to sting. Paper wasps, on the other hand, can be trained to be hand-fed by a brave entomologist.

The joke relies on false assumptions about wasps

You could argue that the objections over how this meme portrays bees are a little nitpicky, and I’d argue you’re right. There’s been a lot of awareness about how great bees are for the environment, and the ideas these memes spread about bees aren’t completely wrong even though they’re not right on the nose. I think bees are good, and although I have some minor quibbles about how they’re portrayed in these memes, I think the overall message of pollinator conservation is good.

The much bigger issue, however, is how this meme portrays wasps. The meme portrays wasps as a useless part of the environment, and that’s simply not true for a lot of reasons.

1.) Wasps are biological control

One of the main complaints against wasps in the memes is that they have no use for humans because they don’t produce honey. Again, this isn’t true. There are some wasps which do produce honey, but for the most part wasps don’t produce any products directly useful to humans.

Just because an animal doesn’t produce something we can eat doesn’t mean it’s useless, however. Wasps are a vital part of the ecosystem because they help regulate the populations of insect pests. Wasps are common parasites of caterpillars, aphids, whiteflies, and a lot of other insects which eat crops. Due to their host specificity and general hardiness, they’re especially prized by people who look for new animals to introduce to control introduced pests.

The profits for these efforts are actually pretty impressive. Only 2-3% of introduction biocontrol programs result in control of the pests, but these few successful programs work well enough to more than justify the cost of continued searching for control agents. Depending on the level of success, and the crop, an introduction biocontrol program can save farmers between 5-1,000 times the cost of the program.

Unfortunately, the rare success isn’t the norm. Fortunately, farm fields have their own ecosystems which help keep pests down. Pest management professionals have estimated the benefits of these organisms to be around $100-200/hectare in cotton. The US harvested 3.6 million hectacres of cotton between 2013 and 2014, so a conservative estimate of the value of natural biocontrol would be 300 million dollars.

Just for cotton. Nevermind everything else.

Now, to be fair, these analysis also involve non-waspy critters like ladybugs, lacewings, and predatory mites. Despite this, predatory and parasitic wasps do still play a huge role in keeping pesticide applications to a minimum.

I think that’s probably the most important thing wasps do for us.

2.) Wasps are pollinators.

Wasps are important pollinators for a lot of native plants, and even some agricultural products. Goldenrod, for example, is pollinated in large part thanks to Polistes paper wasps.

If you’ve ever had figs, these plants are largely pollinated by wasps which live within the plant as symbiotes.

Of  course, a lot of commercial varieties (like the figs used in Fig Newtons) are produced without the need for pollination. On the whole, most figs do need wasps for pollination.

3.) Wasps as models for sociality

Insects can build incredible societies, and studying how ant colonies work has actually improved everything from air travel to telecommunications.

However, these societies have to start somewhere. Honeybees are highly evolved societies, but paper wasp colonies are still pretty loose-knit and primitive. So wasps are really important to understanding how and why societies work, and can even shed light on how our society works.

4.) Wasps as a basis for biotechnology

Wasps do a lot of amazing things. For example, Braconid and Ichneumonid wasps have evolved along with Polydnaviruses…which are the perfect gene vectors. If we could figure out how to create a PDV-like gene vector for people, HIV would likely become something you read about in history books. Even if we could only do it for insects, this would revolutionize biotechnological applications.

Also, wasp venom has it’s own biotechnological applications. The venom of Polybia, a distant cousin of the Yellow Jacket above, can selectively kill cancer cells in a petri dish. This is a pretty far cry from a new treatment, and a lot more development is needed, but it’s still a new source of potentially useful pharmaceutical compounds.

The Bottom Line

Wasps are important, and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t.

The reality is that bees can be very aggressive, and wasps can be very tame in the right circumstances. These are both animals, small and easily scared, which are capable of defending themselves. They deserve respect, not scorn.

Both bees and wasps are extremely useful, but in very different ways. Bees produce something we consume directly, but wasps keep us from having to hurt the environment to produce food.

These are both very important things. So please stop sharing those memes.

Works Cited

Naranjo, Steven E., Peter C. Ellsworth, and George B. Frisvold. “Economic Value of Biological Control in Integrated Pest Management of Managed Plant Systems.” Annual review of entomology 60 (2015): 621-645.
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14 Responses to Please stop sharing the ‘wasps are jerks’ memes.

  1. Ray Eckhart says:

    And from an historical standpoint, paper wasps led scientists into the direction of making paper from wood pulp, rather than linen rags.

    >>The French scientist, René Réaumur, came up with the solution in 1719. Look at North American wasps, he said — what you and I call paper wasps. They make fine paper for their nests by chewing up wood and exuding it. And if they can do that, why can’t we?

    Réaumur didn’t actually make paper. But the idea stayed alive until a German clergyman, Jacob Schaffer, got his hands on it. Between 1765 and 1771 he wrote a huge treatise on making paper from alternate fibers. He included actual paper samples that he’d made from wasp nests and directly from various woods.<<

    http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1052.htm

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have a wonderful range of wasps here. At the moment they seem to be the key pollinators .

    Like

  3. Erohiel says:

    Wasps are still assholes though.

    Like

  4. Hans says:

    What about the “Lighten up Francis.” meme? Is that OK?

    Like

  5. I don’t think so. I have seen how yellow jackets (wasps) behave. I have had them ruin summer picnics. I have been stung by them. They have threatened my father’s life.

    Is this is the next nefarious class that is being nominating for “respected” status? I don’t see this one sticking. What are they good for? Getting rid of critters even more annoying than themselves?

    Like

    • Actually, there are lots of conservation programs which are intended to boost wasp numbers for those which attack pests. In many cases, populations of certain wasp species are taken into account when farmers decide to spray.

      Economically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to spend the time and money spraying the field if the wasps are going to do that grunt work.

      So, yeah…it’s a really good idea to do what you can to protect wasps. 🙂

      Like

  6. MJ Merlin says:

    Oh for fuck sakes. Opens with explaining to the reader wtf a joke is, leads up to taking TDS and LWT as “serious” I can smell the regressive SJW lib-tardedness here. Stop telling people to “stop making jokes” because it upsat your poor little tum tum. Actually you probably deserve the same way as what wasps go through each spring and summer. A gas chamber.

    Like

  7. Reg says:

    Fuck off! It’s a JOKE!

    Like

  8. kimoza says:

    Thanks for the info on wasps i always thought they were useless assholes

    Like

  9. Bill says:

    Colony collapse is soon to be one of the biggest problems the typical farmer will be facing, whether or not they know it. When a colony is susceptible to being wiped out, such as in most cases of colony collapse, they are vulnerable to any predator–most notably wasps and hornets. Wasps kill and eat the remaining bees, queen included, and will often eat honey and nectar as well. Most importantly, WASPS DO NOT MAKE HONEY (for the most part); and as such DO NOT POLLINATE, arguably the most important function bees currently serve for humans.

    Wasps curb pest population you say? Well our bees are already dying off en masse, and their numbers shrink each year — so what you call a ‘trim in population,’ I call unnecessary endangerment. I don’t have time to tell you why bees dying is a bad thing, suffice it to say “as far as important species go, they are top of the list. They are critical pollinators: they pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. Honey bees are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops.” (BBC.com)

    And when the crops go, so do a lot of other things on the food chain.
    TL;DR — We need more bees, and a lot more. Wasps slaughter bees in huge numbers. No bees might mean we all die. Therefore, wasps are contributing to the end of humanity, and possibly all semi-intelligent life on earth. Wasps ARE jerks.

    And by the way, the amount of wasps that DO make honey (like the Mexican Honey Wasp), as compared to the total amount of wasps, is pretty negligible. Most wasps actually just STEAL honey from bees. If you wanted to undo the damage done by waspkind, you would need a lot of Mexican honey wasps, and you would need to distribute them globally–and even that might have an adverse environmental impact.

    Sources:
    BBC – What Would happen if Bees went Extinct?
    http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140502-what-if-bees-went-extinct

    I am a farmer; walnuts and apricots

    Like

    • Bill,

      If you watch the video at the link, I think you’ll see that it’s very different than what you describe above.

      It’s true that there are issues with bees, especially native ones. Here in the US, the situation is mostly an economic problem…but there are some real issues.

      According to the video, and I think they do a good job of hitting the main points, the biggest issues are habitat loss and parasitic mites which spread in diseases honeybee colonies. These problems interact with things like climate change, pesticides, and even competition between native and introduced (e.g. honeybee) species to make the problem worse.

      Nowhere in the video are wasps mentioned.

      Now, it is true, that wasps will attack and rob honeybee colonies during the fall. Yellowjackets are the biggest culprit for this here in the US. This is because the wasps tend to attack the weaker colonies which are already on their way out. Because they’re attacking weaker colonies, they likely spread disease between hives. However, nobody is really sure how big of a role this particular interaction plays in disease transmission because it just hasn’t been looked at that closely. The data needed to answer that question simply doesn’t exist yet. Whether or not it plays a big role, their role is likely nowhere near as big of a problem that Varroa is.

      So wasps do attack beehives at certain points of the year, but there’s a lot more to the story under the surface. 🙂

      -Joe

      Like

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