In a new study from University College London, experts describe the value of wasps as predators and pollinators. Based on evidence from over 500 studies and roughly 33,000 species, the researchers found that these insects play underestimated roles in the health of humans and ecosystems.
“Wasps are one of those insects we love to hate – and yet bees, which also sting, are prized for pollinating our crops and making honey,” said lead author Professor Seirian Sumner.
“In a previous study, we found that the hatred of wasps is largely due to widespread ignorance about the role of wasps in ecosystems, and how they can be beneficial to humans.”
“Wasps are understudied relative to other insects like bees, so we are only now starting to properly understand the value and importance of their ecosystem services. Here, we have reviewed the best evidence there is, and found that wasps could be just as valuable as other beloved insects like bees, if only we gave them more of a chance.”
When it comes to protecting crops, predation by insects is worth at least $416 billion per year worldwide, and wasps are top predators of other insects. For example, they regulate populations of crop-damaging arthropods like caterpillars.
While solitary wasps typically target a specific pest, social ones may be useful to control a range of crop-eating pests.
According to the researchers, wasps could be used as a sustainable form of pest control in developing countries, especially tropical ones, where farmers could bring in a local species with minimal risk to the natural environment.
The UCL team recently published a study which found that common wasps are effective at managing pests that attack maize and sugarcane in Brazil.
The current study reveals that wasps pollinate 960 plant species, including 164 species that are completely dependent on them for pollination.
The experts note that many wasps are also generalist pollinators that visit a wide variety of plants, which means that they can serve as “backup pollinators” if a plant loses its local primary pollinator.
Furthermore, wasp venom and saliva have antibiotic properties, while yellowjacket venom has shown promise in treating cancer. In some tropical countries, wasp larvae are even harvested for food.
According to study co-author Dr. Alessandro Cini, the value of wasps in supporting our crops remains poorly understood. “We hope that by rehabilitating their bad reputation, we can collectively get the most value out of these fascinating creatures.”
“Alongside other insects, many wasp species are declining from factors such as climate change and habitat loss,” added study first author Ryan Brock.
“As such, there is urgent need to address their conservation and ensure that habitats continue to benefit from the far-reaching ecosystem services that wasps provide.”
The study is published in the journal Biological Reviews.