Wasps make up an enormously diverse array of insects, with some 30,000 identified species. We are most familiar with those that are wrapped in bright warning colors—ones that buzz angrily about in groups and threaten us with painful stings.
But most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging varieties. And all do far more good for humans by controlling pest insect populations than harm.
Wasps are distinguishable from bees by their pointed lower abdomens and the narrow “waist,” called a petiole, that separates the abdomen from the thorax.
All wasps build nests. Whereas bees secrete a waxy substance to construct their nests, wasps create their familiar papery abodes from wood fibers scraped with their hard mandibles and chewed into a pulp.
Most animals have developed a well-earned fear of stinging wasps and give them a wide berth. Creatures who haplessly stumble upon a wasp colony or have the audacity to disturb a nest will find themselves quickly swarmed. A social wasp in distress emits a pheromone that sends nearby colony members into a defensive, stinging frenzy. Unlike bees, wasps can sting repeatedly. Only females have stingers, which are actually modified egg-laying organs.
Despite the fear they sometimes evoke, wasps are extremely beneficial to humans. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae. Wasps are so adept at controlling pest populations that the agriculture industry now regularly deploys them to protect crops.