With spring finally on the way, many of us are excited about patio season. So are some wasps. It’s an almost sure bet that in late summer yellowjackets of the genus Vespula will be unwanted visitors at our outdoor picnics and barbecues. Even though I’m a hymenopterist – someone who studies bees and wasps, currently the museum’s Beaty Postdoctoral Fellow for Species Discovery – I too can be bothered by yellowjackets as they relentlessly hover around my plate and drink.

But while there’s lots of buzz about bees’ ecological and economic importance, it’s unfortunate that our appreciation of wasps’ enormous ecological role is overshadowed by a few species that disrupt our outdoor dining.

What are wasps? They include more than 100 000 members of the insect order Hymenoptera with a narrow “waist” that are not bees or ants.

A pinned wasp specimen
A female baldfaced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, a widely distributed and commonly encountered species of North American wasp. Image: François Génier, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Wasps are essential for ecosystem functioning and indirectly responsible for increased food production. Most wasp species prey on other insects, including agricultural pests (the ones hovering over your drink are adults in search of a sugar fix to fuel their flight). Some wasps are parasitoids, laying eggs in other insects. After hatching, the offspring feed on those insects. These wasps in particular are a desirable and effective alternative to pesticides as they go after specific insect targets without any risk of environmental contamination.

Many wasps are also essential pollinators. Figs, for example, are pollinated by minute, specialized wasps.

A bee sitting on a leaf.
Although very wasp-like, this is a female cuckoo bee (Nomada sp.). Cuckoo bees invade the nests of foraging bee species, stealing their pollen. The absence of long pollen-collecting hairs is due to their cleptoparasitic lifestyle. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Bees are effectively vegetarian wasps and include more than 20 000 species. Unlike wasps, bees have small, branched featherlike hairs which help to pick up flower pollen, the protein-rich food source on which their brood is reared, and in turn pollinate flowers.

However, not all bee species are important pollinators. About 15% of bees are “cuckoos” — they invade the nests of other bee species stealing pollen for their own offspring.

Two bright red flowers in the foreground, many red flowers in the background. A bee is flying toward the flowers.
The flowers of the scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) attract many kinds of bees. Image: Thomas Onuferko, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, what about the fear of getting stung by a wasp? Yes, female yellowjackets can inflict a painful sting (the males don’t have stings). But the majority of wasp species don’t sting.

Many female bees and some ants also have stings, but they generally do not elicit strong negative feelings. We see bees as seemingly docile compared to wasps, even though social bees can be quite dangerous when defending a nest.

Bees and wasps both play vital roles in the production of much of the food we eat. The pollination of plants by bees enhances fruit production. Wasps help keep pests away, reducing competition for our food.

So, the next time that wasps are bugging you, it might help to recall that without them, your meal might look very different.