In The Wasp Woman, a 1959 B-movie directed by Roger Corman, the owner of a failing cosmetics company becomes the test subject for a novel anti-ageing formula manufactured from the royal jelly of wasps. Janice Starlin, played by Susan Cabot, appears 20 years younger in a matter of days, but inevitably transforms into a monstrous creature – half-woman, half-wasp – who goes on to brutally murder and devour a string of unfortunate men. It mattered not that bees, rather than wasps, produce royal jelly. The Bee Woman? Nowhere near as terrifying.
Unlike bees, which we adore for their honey and waggle dances, wasps have suffered from a poor public image for millennia. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle dismissed wasps as “devoid of the extraordinary features that characterise bees”, adding conclusively, “they have nothing divine about them”. Since then you’d struggle to find a sympathetic cultural portrayal of wasps. Swarms of wasps smite unbelievers in the Bible. Shakespeare warns of waspish behaviour. We disparage the snobbishness of WASPs. The Wasp Woman epitomised the nightmarish (and somewhat sexist) association we have with the archetype. Wasps are narrow-waisted huntresses to be feared. Or at the very least, swatted away.
Dr Seirian Sumner, a behavioural ecologist and entomologist at University College London, believes it is time to draw a line under this sorry history. She has spent the past 25 years studying and advocating for wasps. Aristotle, Shakespeare, The Wasp Woman – it’s all part of a vast catalogue of anti-wasp media that she wearily describes in her book Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps.
In it, Sumner argues that it is time we disentangle the wasp from the lazy tropes that have blighted its character for so long, and states the case for a renewed social, cultural and scientific appreciation for the creature. At last, perhaps, some good publicity for wasps.
And if you were a wasp, Sumner is precisely the sort of person you would want as an ambassador. Her Twitter handle @WaspWoman is a statement that it is a persona she is proud to uphold. She is a different sort of wasp woman, one who hopes we will see wasps not as sting-wielding picnic pests or fodder for horror flicks, but instead for the many benefits they have quietly proffered upon the world for millions of years. Wasps can help us understand the evolution of social behaviours. They reveal secrets about the interconnectedness of life. And they represent vast, untapped, economic potential. “The problem with wasps,” writes Sumner, “is people.”
In March, I visited Sumner at her office in the UCL bioscience department. It is a small room with a prominent theme. In one corner stands a large flag for the rugby team Wasps. Her bookshelves are peppered with family photos and wasp-related souvenirs collected from research trips around the world. There is a large plastic “decorative wasp” for gardens and a furry wasp soft toy (somewhat cuter). To my left, a collection of wasp nests are elegantly displayed, illustrating the delicate paper architecture of various species. Sumner shows me her favourite, the nest of a Belonogaster wasp from Zambia. “Don’t you think it looks like a designer dress?” she says, handling the haute-couture construction with care. “There’s a bodice and a puffball skirt. I want someone to make a dress like that.”
Sumner, 48, who has short brown hair and dark-framed glasses, didn’t always feel this way about wasps. She too once feared their presence: “I was the one to scream and run away, probably louder than anyone else, to be honest.” In fact, she tells me, she was “tricked” into studying them. In 1996, she was pursuing a PhD in animal behaviour, perhaps on birds, she thought (she was into bird watching at the time), or meerkats, the much-loved socialites of the natural world. No such luck. She was recommended to Professor Jeremy Field, a world expert in social wasps who was recruiting for a project in Southeast Asia. Sumner was excited about the adventure, but uneasy about the occupational hazards. Field was persuasive. “‘Oh, these wasps don’t sting,’ he told me,” says Sumner, “which turned out to be a big fat lie!”
But it was in Malaysia, crouched in the jungle with a hover wasp nest dangling inches from her face, that Sumner’s relationship with these insects transformed from “ignorance and fear, to respect, fascination and, you know, love for them, really”. Thankfully it transpired that hover wasps only delivered a mild sting, so, for weeks, she watched as the insects navigated the complex framework of their existence, from birth to death. She realised her preconceptions about wasps were all wrong, their complexities overlooked. As she writes, wasps negotiate “divisions of labour, rebellions and policing, monarchies, leadership contests… ” It’s like watching a miniature soap opera, she says. “You get really attached to them.”
Much of Sumner’s research has focused on understanding what makes wasps tick – why helpers help, hunters hunt and why they choose to live in groups at all… The vespine raison d’être, if you will. As Sumner enjoys telling people, wasps existed 100m years before bees, and offer scientists such as herself the chance to travel back in time to unravel early stages in the evolution of sociality. A solitary hunting wasp gave rise to the social wasp (at some point in time, a wasp lost the ability to hunt and gained the ability to exploit pollen: the “original bee”). Boutique wasp societies, such as the hover wasp, which live in groups of around half a dozen, or the Polistes, which Sumner has studied in Panama for more than 15 years, offer an easy-to-manipulate testing ground for hypotheses about the emergence of social living.
In Malaysia, Sumner hand-painted thousands of hover wasps in order to keep track of them. In Panama, she radio-tagged (just like microchipping a pet) similar numbers of Polistes to trace their movement further afield. Her studies trained a microscope on the behavioural traits of different wasp species. Some female hover wasps, for example, choose to stay in their nest and muck in with childcare, rather than depart to become a queen. The Polistes wasp “drifts” from its own nest to assist others in the neighbourhood. Sumner tells me that one PhD student of hers, Robin Southon, observed that the odd male Polistes will even hang out at the nest and help feed the brood (albeit only briefly). “Perhaps it’s a trade-off,” she says, “where they get to stay at home a bit longer, provided that they help out.” It’s impossible not to draw parallels with the negotiations we make in our own lives. As Sumner writes: “Of all the social insects, it is these simple-societied wasps that we humans have most in common with.”
Observing the minutiae of wasp life is not without risks. In Panama, Sumner was stung badly and her face swelled up in a sort of “elephantine disfigurement”. Before then she admits she was “gung-ho” about wearing a face covering. Now she always packs a wide-brimmed hat with netting. “The more you get stung, the more likely you are to have a very bad reaction,” she says. “So I made a decision to be more careful. I don’t want my career to be curtailed because I die getting stung by my favourite organism.”
Wasp researchers certainly have bravado. Sumner tells me about one student who got stung 189 times during a three-month field study. “He thanked the wasps for all the stings in his PhD thesis.” When tackling vespids – such as a yellow jacket or hornet nest – researchers get decked out in full bee suits “Ghostbusters-style”. Otherwise, Sumner reassures me, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. “A pair of Marigold gloves will do! Though you might want to gaffer tape up your sleeves and trouser legs… wasps like going into dark places.”
Sumner’s vivid enthusiasm for wasps is contagious. It sounds fun, gallivanting around the world with a pair of washing-up gloves, watching wasp Big Brother. And with every animated description of the daily lives of a wasp family, my prejudices melt away. But to Sumner, our cultural disinclination towards wasps is more than just a harmless misunderstanding, it is an obstruction to science. “We’re primed from a young age not to like wasps and people can’t help but carry that baggage into their research careers,” she says. “For every paper on the ecosystem services of wasps, there are 40 about bees. Even the funding bodies, governments… they’re also victims of our anti-wasp cultural upbringing. We’re 100 years behind in our research compared to bees.”
If Sumner were to produce a film about wasp research – one that could outshine the hokey science of The Wasp Woman – it would be a period drama starring a pair of American entomologists named George and Elizabeth Peckham. During the early 1900s this charismatic husband-and-wife team made sport of chasing wasps around Wisconsin in their attempts to understand the hunting behaviour of the insect. Sumner pictures the pair leaping fences: Elizabeth in a hoop skirt, George in a shirt and necktie. “I imagine Elizabeth shouting, you go chase the wasp George!” says Sumner, adopting a Midwestern drawl. “Chase the wasp!” The pair would follow wasps to the point of collapse, so eager were they to unlock its secrets. “I was just blown away by how brilliant they were,” she says.
The Peckhams were one of a group of early naturalists who obsessively documented the lives of solitary wasps. The most prominent was Jean Henri Fabre, a French naturalist, known for placing wasps in bell jars with various prey and excitedly watching the action. Fabre described the wasp’s sting in rather Freudian terms: “Mother’s stiletto.” Sumner describes the lives, passion and perceptiveness of these naturalists in a chapter of her book named The Obsessions of the Wasp Whisperers. Diving into these out-of-print texts, Sumner learned that a century ago scientists were tantalisingly close to understanding the behaviour of many wasps and that their conclusions were not so far off the truth.It is a reminder that a lot can be understood about the world around us, just by watching it. “I considered naming the chapter Slow Wasping,” she says. It sounds like a useful philosophy: to recognise that we can learn a lot from stopping to appreciate the creatures around us – even those we usually run from.
For now, many questions about wasps remain unanswered, many wasps, unwatched. We know they contribute to pollination and help control the population of other insects, but what is their economic value? Sumner believes it is substantial, but without cold, hard data wasps will continue to be overlooked. Last year she co-authored a review of 500 academic papers to begin the process of quantifying the benefit of the insect. It found that wasps help pollinate 960 plant species, with 164 plants – mostly orchids – completely dependent on wasps. And they may contribute in lesser ways to the pollination of many other plants. Theirs is a role that should not be underestimated. Bee populations have dwindled due to human activity, but, as Sumner has written, some social wasps have proved remarkably resilient to anthropogenic change. The review concluded that wasps could prove to be a critical “back-up pollinator” in the face of changes to biodiversity.
Sumner is interested in the role wasps play as a natural pest controller. Again, this is not a new idea, but deserves a closer look. In a 19th-century book named British Social Wasps (which sounds like a satire about high society, but is, in fact, quite literal), the physician Edward Latham Ormerod described how the eradication of wasps on a country estate soon led “like Egypt” to a plague of flies. Sumner cites this book as another example of scientists neglecting to follow up on observations about wasps made 150 years ago. If we are to harness wasps as pest controllers, we need to know more. In the UK, Sumner has been sequencing DNA from the guts of wasp larva (an elegant pastime if ever there was one), in order to understand what exactly wasps eat, and what pests they might best control. In Brazil, along with Southon, she has been releasing wasps into greenhouses to see how they affected the population of crop-damaging worms. Wasps may not be as efficient as pesticides, she explains, but the problem with pesticides is that they eradicate everything – “even wasps” – regardless of the benefit. Wasps could be a free and sustainable alternative, a win-win for both farmers and ecosystems.
Ultimately, what sort of relationship we want to have with wasps is up to us. How much we choose to gain, or believe that we lose, from their presence comes down to the narratives we spin. When we think of bees, we think fondly of a creature that is entwined in our lives. Bees are a crucial cog in the mechanics of global agriculture. They are indispensable to the future of humanity. Without them, we would crumble. “What we need,” says Sumner, “is an equivalent story about wasps.”
Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps (William Collins, £20) by Seirian Sumner will be published on 26 May. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £17.40