Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens
by Eric Grissell. Timber Press, 2010. 335 pp., $27.95 US. ISBN-13: 9780881929881

I came across gardening in a very roundabout way, and I can credit one book as being my awakening to the possibilities. That book, discovered in a pile in the Natural History section of the local Half Price Books, was The Hunting Wasp by John Crompton. Before starting that volume, my attitude toward wasps was the same as with most humans: duck and wave your arms around your head if one approaches, and rush for the can of Raid when it retreats. Considering how sensitive I am to honeybee venom, I thought I had a good reason to keep up that attitude.

Well, that was before John Crompton. Without him, I never would have learned exactly how valuable wasps are in the garden, and in fact elsewhere. Honeybees can pollinate flowers, but they do nothing against common garden pests. With the exception of vertebrates, pretty much every gardener’s nemesis has a parasitoid or exoparasite wasp that uses it as a host. Tomato hornworm caterpillars, houseflies, spiders large and small, cicadas, and even praying mantises are all prey. The more social wasps such as paper wasps may not capture and paralyze prey, but they still do their part: I currently have a paper wasp nest on the back porch, right over my head when I’m repotting plants. Considering how much damage they do to the annual green looper plague every spring, anyone who wants to spray my paper wasps will have to go through me first.

That’s the biggest thing that Crompton’s book taught me: we’re taught our basic responses to wasps, and they’re a matter of conditioned fear, augmented by the pain of the very occasional sting. Wasps should be respected, yes, especially by those with allergies to their venom. However, a lot of what’s seen as wasp aggression is really little more than curiosity, abetted by our conditioning to react in a certain way to certain insect shapes and colors. What’s funnier is that this conditioning is one of the big factors in keeping male wasps alive, as they have no sting and are completely harmless to humans.

When it comes to books on members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the vast majority focus on the bees. Lots and lots on traditional honeybees, with maybe some mention of carpenter bees, mason bees, and sweat bees as a sidenote. Most books on ants are intended for grade-school students, and they’re discarded about the time the reader has to deal with carpenter ant damage to a house or Argentine fire ant infestations in the yard. Wasp books pretty much begin and end with Crompton and with Jean-Henri Fabre’s The Hunting Wasps, now nearly a century old. And on the wasp cousins the sawflies? Not a peep, outside of basic insect pest guides.

Part of the reason for that lack of care, obviously, is bad public relations. Bee folklore and mythology range the width and breadth of the planet. (How many of you know that the name “Melissa” is ancient Greek for “bee”?) Ants at least get the Aesop’s fable on the ant and the grasshopper. Ants and bees get cutesy Pixar movies made about them. The closest to popular respect given to wasps? A begrudging comment on how the life cycle of the title creature in the film Alien had a basis in the real-life habits of certain exoparasite wasps.

Yeah yeah, sure sure. The wasp’s world is a horrifying one compared to that of humans, and it’s not hard to see the comparisons. (Last year, I came across an unopened silkworm coccoon hanging from a maple tree, and found inside the coccoon a mummified silkworm with two tiny holes in its body from where wasp larvae, implanted as eggs before the caterpillar started spinning, had gnawed their way out before pupating within the coccoon. I couldn’t help but murmur “Alien life form, dead a long time. Fossilized. Looks like it grew out of the chair.”) That’s just part of the story. Most wasps are essential pollinators, as the adults only consume nectar and other sweets (this explaining why they’re always attracted to spilled juice or soda), and they’re often manipulated themselves, as with wasp orchids. Furthermore, each parasitoid (young develops within the host’s body) or exoparasite (young develops outside) wasp species has a specific host, and those can range from aphids to cicaidas. I was recently lucky enough to view two tarantula hawk wasps searching for prey, and as their name implies, their chosen hosts are tarantulas and other extremely large spiders. Crompton himself was impressed by one species of wasp that attacks and paralyzes praying mantises, and he described these wasps as being like a human mother who has decided that the only food fit for her children is grizzly bear. (With both tarantula hawks and mantis hunters, the wasps don’t always win their battles.)

It takes a special love to research a book on wasps and their preferred hunting methods, and I was afraid I’d hit the point where the only way I was going to find a book with the information I sought was by writing it myself. Thankfully, research entomologist Eric Grissell beat me to it, and in so doing, gave me a lot of ideas for future arrangements. For instance, he described going from butterfly to wasp garden by setting up a solar-powered water pump with a 5-gallon bucket as a well and covering the top with rocks that would get splashed during the heat of the day, encouraging wasps and bees to gather water without a chance of drowning. Considering the number of bees and wasps converging on my Sarracenia pots for water during the summer heat, this is going to be an essential addition to the garden come next spring.

And then there are the photos. Crompton’s and Fabre’s books are a bit lacking in illustrations, and thankfully Bees, Wasps, and Ants is thoroughly and copiously augmented by beautiful color photos. When the photos can make me appreciate the beauty of ants, this says something.

As a final note, one of the best reasons to buy this book lies with the insects even more disrespected than wasps. Learning about sawflies was intriguing enough, but for years, the only information I could find on the local velvet ants was that (a) velvet ants were solitary wasps, (b) the females are wingless, and (c) their sting packed a powerful enough punch that they’re referred to throughout Texas as “cow-killers”. (I haven’t seen one since 1980, but after narrowly missing being stung, I don’t plan to test its ranking in the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to make sure.) That right there made this book indispensable, as now I can get co-workers and family members to alternate between oohing in wonder and making vague squicking sounds when reading about braconid wasps on tomato hornworms. I was even able to make the Czarina’s head go “pop” when describing the color of tarantula hawk antennae as tango, and she definitely wasn’t expecting to learn about colors and historical significance from a discussion of wasps.

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