Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2006
Regional Report

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This paper wasp is searching for an opening into a fall webworm nest. Provide them a way in and they'll go to work for you.

Wasps Reconsidered

I remember summers growing up in the south. Climbing trees, playing outdoor games, running barefoot ... lots of good memories. There are also some not-so-great ones. At the top of that list are paper wasps. It was inevitable that every summer I was destined to get stung at least once by these dive-bombing, six-legged terrorists who clearly had it out for me. The fact that I owned a slingshot and found their nests a challenging target probably contributed to the problem.

I recall one August day when it occurred to me that I had not been stung all summer! Later that day, while retrieving a ball from beneath a Ligustrum bush, the wasps insured their perfect record was still intact. I have plenty more great and exciting stories about my youthful encounters with wasps, but that is not why you are reading this column. The basic point is that I hated those things and could find no reason whatsoever for their existence.

Now as a gardener and a student of nature's interrelated balancing acts, I have gained a new perspective on these insects. Wasps are predators, feeding on insects such as caterpillars, flies, and beetle larvae. I have on many occasions seen one in the garden perched on a leaf or tomato cage chomping up a caterpillar to take back to their nest to feed to their larvae.

Webworms are a common problem in our southern landscapes. Wasps fly around looking for a way into the nest. The caterpillars build the webbing around branches of leaves so they can spend the day feeding on the leaves, protected from predators by the webbing. Go out and break up the webbing with a stick. Then check back in about 15 to 30 minutes and you'll most likely see wasps flying in to haul away the bounty.

I did this with one of my daughters once, and we had a fascinating show. That brings me to another point. Wasps are not out to sting us just for the fun (or meanness) of it. They sting when threatened and especially to protect their nests. We watched the webworm carnage with wasps flying around us giving no thought to our presence.

There are many more relatives of paper wasps that also serve a beneficial function. Among these are the dirt daubers, which include the potter wasps that make the marble-sized round mud balls on your screens. I once broke open a couple of potter wasp mud balls to find almost a dozen looper type caterpillars inside. Thank you very much!

Then there are the tiny encarsia wasps that parasitize insect eggs, the braconid wasps that produce those white elongated pupal cases on tomato hornworms, the aphid parasitoids that turn a green or yellow aphid into a tan puffy dry shell before emerging as an adult to continue the entomological horror movie. Way cool! This brief listing doesn't begin to give justice to the long list of beneficial wasp species in our gardens.

Oh sure I still cringe at the thought of a wasp sting. Nests being constructed near the front or back door or in any location my family frequents will still have to go. But those nests in out-of-the-way spots get to stay.

I should add that no one in my family is allergic to wasp stings or I would not tolerate them on the property because allergic reactions can be life threatening. Nevertheless, we now share our place with a number of wasp nests. They do their part in helping to manage caterpillars around the landscape and garden, and I keep my slingshot pointed in another direction.

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