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.
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.
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.