Give wasps a break

Wasps get a bad rep at this time of year, because at the end of August they become obsessed with what we’re eating and drinking. Unfortunately, the resulting human–wasp encounters often end up in (human) tears and/or a squashed wasp.

But I say, be kind to wasps, because although they might be a bit annoying right now, most of the time they leave us well alone and do a lot of good.

Portrait of common wasp Vespula vulgaris

Portrait of the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) by Tim Evison, Denmark (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons via www.scientificillustration.net.

What is the point of wasps?

Wasps are vital to the environment. Why?

  1. They are voracious predators that hoover up a lot of pests (greenfly etc.). In fact, without wasps many common crop pests would have few natural predators, so we’d have to use a lot more pesticides to get the food in our fields to our plates!
  2. Their penchant for nectar means they are great pollinators. You may be surprised to know (I was!) that there is evidence to suggest they do as good a job as bees in this respect.

It’s just a shame that at this time of year they suddenly get the urge to tuck into our jam sandwiches.

From pest killer to pest

Social worker wasps live in large colonies in beautifully constructed ‘paper’ nests. They toil ceaselessly to build and defend the nest and tend to the needs of their egg-laying queen, and collect food from around your garden to raise more workers. The larvae that hatch from the eggs convert their protein-rich diet of garden pests into carbohydrates, which they secrete as a sugary drop that the adults then feed on.

By the end of summer, however, there are no more larvae to raise, and no more food for the workers. The queen stops making the hormone that keeps the workers together in the nest, and they disperse in search of sugars and carbohydrates to stay alive. That’s why they make a beeline (or waspline!) for your pint of cider or packet of crisps.

Wasps on rotting pear

They’ll also tuck in to any rotting fruit – like this pear on a tree in my garden

A wasp is a wasp, right?

Wrong. According to BugLife, there are around 9000 species of wasp in the UK. Some are parasitic and tiny; most are solitary and no bother to us at all. Only nine species are social wasps that form large nests, the most common of which is aptly named the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) – the one we all know and (?)love.

Live and let live

So, yes, I know they are a nuisance right now, but wasps are an important part of your garden’s ecosystem, so cut them some slack. Let them sup at your table unharmed for a few minutes; once sated they are likely to fly off and leave you alone.

If you really can’t bear to have them around, try to stay calm and ‘waft’ them away rather than swiping wildly at them. An angry wasp will retaliate, and when they sting it hurts like hell – that’s what makes them such good predators. Finally, try not to kill them (other than for science, as below), because a dead wasp releases pheromones that tell other wasps there is a threat, and before you know it you’ll have more than one wasp to contend with!

Citizen science

Scientists want to find out more about the much-maligned social wasp, and are calling on members of the public to help with their Big Wasp Survey.  They want to know which species live where, and they can then use that information in the future to find out what factors affect wasp populations.

Click on the link to find out how to make a simple beer trap to catch a wasp or two in your garden. I must admit, I had my reservations about this project, as it means killing wasps. But, the team at the Big Wasp Survey explain that the wasps you trap will have a negligible effect on UK wasp populations; in fact, they expect the number of wasps they receive to be less than the equivalent of a single wasp colony.

Ultimately, the project should benefit wasps in years to come … and my garden is a better place with wasps than without!

Wasps – love, hate or tolerate them? Let me know!

Hungry hedgehogs

Ironic that it was Hedgehog Awareness Week last week, because here in our small back garden in Hampshire we have been becoming increasingly hedgehog aware. It started as a bit of a mystery. Every morning we would find the cage on top of our bird ground feeder knocked askew, and the remains of the birds’ mealworms and suet devoured. A ratty visitor perhaps?

Who’s poo?

But then, more distinct telltale signs: shiny black droppings, not just one or two, but tens of poops around the lawn. Most of the literature on hedgehogs states that their stools are distinctly cylindrical, sometimes slightly tapered at one end and about 5cm in length, but I can confirm that hedgehog poop comes in all shapes and sizes, and in vast quantities.

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical ... and lots of it!

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical … and lots of it!

In the flesh

And then we finally caught the culprit in the act. Instantly recognisable – short tail, long legs, small ears, pointed furry face, small black eyes … a lot of spines … and terrible table manners! Those of you who follow this blog will know that our last sighting of a hedgehog was back in the summer of 2015 (see Huffing Hedgehogs), so you can imagine our excitement.

Hedgehog in garden

Instantly recognizable

We immediately got down to the serious business of leaving the right food out.

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are omnivores but over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails. You can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts (not whole sunflower seeds)
  • Sultanas and raisins

And if the guzzling in our back garden is anything to go by, they will appreciate it!

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

And make sure you provide:

  • Water – they drink a lot!
  • A sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

Lawn of many hedgehogs

So, for the past 4 weeks we have been putting the food direct onto the lawn after dark between 9 and 10pm, when there are fewer marauding moggies around to sneak a crafty snack. This seems to have encouraged more hedgehog visitors to the garden, and as they are not territorial they seem to be content to share the food without too much squabbling. In fact, we have now seen up to four hedgehogs together at any one time on the lawn.

 

Hedgehogs feeding

Erinaceus europaeus – three caught on camera – enjoying the buffet

Even if they are not around on the lawn, then we can usually hear them through the night, either huffing at each other in our herbaceous borders or in our neighbour’s garden. Yes, the courting rituals have started (hedgehog breeding season is April through to September) and we have our fingers crossed for hoglets later this summer.

Look after your hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK are continuing to decline. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) 1 in 3 of all British hedgehogs have been lost since the year 2000. They are on the endangered species list, so if you find them in your garden, look after them!

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins