Whenever we look at pests and parasites, we will often ask: “What’s the point of this creature?” We look at a tick, cockroach, or a wasp, and we have a hard time coming up with an answer. Well, it turns out that pretty much all of them can be beneficial in certain environments. Wasps for example are often preying on other pest insects, and their venom can be used to produce powerful antibiotics. They also pollinate plants and they can be a nutritious snack.
In a comprehensive scientific review of wasps and their role in the ecosystem, researchers studied 33,000 known species of hunting wasps from all over the world. The wasps that we are most familiar with and that bother us when we’re trying to have a nice time outside, the yellowjackets and hornets, are only a very small proportion of wasp species. However, even they prove to be useful because they prey on caterpillars that would otherwise be damaging vegetable patches. The venom of the yellow jacket is also currently investigated as a potential cancer treatment.
Around the world, insect species are dropping in population, which actually poses a threat to our wellbeing. Wasps however are resilient, and they can be just as useful as bees. The total number of known wasp species worldwide is 100,000, with 70,000 of them being non-stinging, parasitic species that are often used for pest control on farms. The other ~30,000 species are known to sting and they are less studied.
Wasps are apex predators in the insect world, and in the proper environment they can be very beneficial. For example, hunting wasps can be used to control the fall army worm that feeds on maize crops, or they can be used to control borer moth populations that would otherwise attack sugarcane plantations. In fact, when used in this fashion, predatory insects are estimated to be worth more than $400 billion each year. If hunting wasps can be added to the repertoire of predatory insects used for pest control, that number is likely to increase. In fact, researchers estimate that hornets and yellowjackets would actually be more valuable than normal insects, because they are social and they live in large colonies.
On top of that, certain solitary species of wasps have venom, saliva and larval secretions that have been used in traditional medicine for their antimicrobial properties. Wasps also are responsible for pollinating 960 plant species, 164 of which are completely dependent on wasps for reproduction.
So while we have this image of bees being hardworking, benevolent insects, we usually look at wasps as purely predatory pests that do take more from the environment than they put in. That is simply turning out to be false, as more and more research comes out. Still, when you have a wasp nest in your yard, they’re probably not that useful to your environment, so don’t worry too much if you want to call a pest control specialist to take them out.