Paper wasps are small, nasty-looking insects that are widely reviled by most urban dwellers in the United States. Nasty-looking because they have the long body, colored stripes, and thin mid-section that most humans instinctively associate with stinging insects. And sting they do.
According to Wikipedia, paper wasps are insects “that gather fibers from dead wood and plant stems, which they mix with saliva, and use to construct water-resistant nests made of gray or brown papery material.” Like their more well-esteemed distant cousins, the honey-bee, paper wasps are an industrious lot. Again according to Wikipedia, there are about 1,100 different species of paper wasps worldwide.
I love paper wasps, because they are one of the best biological controls available for the White Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) and for the flea beetle. Paper wasps are such effective and voracious consumers of these garden pests that they are unmatched by most other forms of control. First, the paper wasp is for the most part, a free resource. They breed on their own and require little to no maintenance. There is no requirement to use any type of outside input to control insect pests. And a single paper wasp can eat dozens of white cabbage butterfly larvae and eggs, and flea beetle specimens to boot, in an as little as 30 minutes. No chemical or mechanical treatment can rival the efficiency of these little bio-hammers.
Human beings are probably the biggest enemy to the paper wasp, particularly in an urban or a suburban setting. Many homeowners, upon seeing a carefully placed nest, will immediately reach for a can of pesticide or call an exterminator. It is unfortunate that human agency, due to a lack of understanding, works against human interest. The paper wasp is not overly aggressive, and most of the time they put their nests in low traffic areas. I too have been forced, reluctantly, to destroy a paper wasp nest that was regretably built in the eave of a storage shed door.
The good news is that we can modify our surroundings to make them more agreeable to paper wasps. If you live an an area where paper wasps are present, follow these simple guidelines to attract them to your garden:
- Avoid pesticide use. Not only will this kill paper wasps, it will also kill the populations of insects that they rely on for their food source.
- If you have flea beetles or cabbage butterflies, be patient, the paper wasps will arrive to clean them up.
- Learn which particular species of paper wasps you have in your area, and study their habits and life cycle
- Have a water feature in the garden
- Build some nesting sites for them in out of the way places. For an easy design, have a look here.
The paper wasp is an excellent example of why collectively we should be better aware of natural reality, and in so doing direct human agency to the task of designing and building sustainable and resilient landscapes.