Known to keep agricultural pests at bay, the egg-laying method of wasps is now being studied to develop safer surgical processes

Last week a young woman in Noida, covered fully to protect her skin from the scorching sun, was riding her bike when she felt a sudden stab on her arm. She came to a screeching jolt, quickly inspected the spot on her arm that had already turned red and pained as well. She returned home and showed her arm to her entomologist father, who deduced that the young woman might have been bitten by a wasp.

Unprovoked wasps rarely sting people and will do so only in defence. In this instance, the young woman was crossing the flight path of the wasp which was mistaken for aggression. Wasps will also sting any intruder if they think that they are too close to their nesting locations. The venom in a wasp sting can be seriously allergic to certain sensitive people and immediate medical treatment is advised. If provoked, wasps will sting more than once, unlike bees which perish after one bite.

Researchers are now trying to unravel the mystery of the wood-boring wasps that tactically lay its eggs inside pine trees with their hypodermic stingers. This method has inspired scientists to come up with novel and safer surgical processes. According to New Scientist magazine, “Unlike existing rigid surgical probes, the device will be flexible enough to move along the safest possible route, bypassing high-risk area of the brain during surgery, for example.” Such a flexible probe would considerably reduce the number of incisions necessary to access areas that are difficult to reach.

Despite their ‘stinging’ reputation, wasps are extremely beneficial to humans in more than one way. Nearly every pest insect on earth is preyed upon by any given wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic baby larvae. Like bees, they are also pollinators and at the same time eradicate thousands of harmful caterpillars that devour crops. In fact, wasps are considered as the ‘tigers of the world of insects’ and coincidently some wasps have yellow and orange coloration with dark stripes akin to a tiger.

G.V. Ranga Rao of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Hyderabad says, “Though the beneficial effects of wasps are not well defined, most wasps are extremely useful in agriculture through the reduction of several insect pest populations; however, their precise contribution is still not evaluated and grossly underestimated. Their contribution to balancing the nature is significant and wasps are good indicators of a healthy environment. Some observations at ICRISAT of mud wasp nests revealed the presence of different crop pests in different seasons based on the availability of vermin in the field.”

Worldwide wasps add up to an astounding array of over 20,000 identified species but we are mostly acquainted with those that are draped in bright warning colours that furiously buzz and threaten us with painful stings. They come in every conceivable colour from the familiar yellow to brown, metallic blue and bright red. Generally, the brighter coloured species are in the Vespidae group or stinging wasp family, sending a clear warning to stay away.

While bees secrete a substance called beeswax to create massive comb-nests, the wasps fabricate their papery abodes from wood fibres by chewing it into pulp. Certain wasps use moist mud to construct interesting structures and some even construct a tiny pot-shaped nest of clay. Invariably wasps build nests with a variety of material and in every available nook and corner.

Wasps are divided into two primary subgroups: social and solitary. Many wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging varieties and are equipped for controlling insect pest populations that invade almost all our food products. Wasps are distinguishable from bees by their pointed lower abdomens (see photo) and the slender “waist” that separates the abdomen from the thorax.

Raghavendra Gadagkarat of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who specialises in the study of social wasps and their biological societies, says, “If we are encouraged to explore and indulge in creepy crawlies as youngsters, there is a remarkable world of insects that can be engaged with for the benefit of human beings.”

Today scientists believe that papermaking has not been invented by man but the idea and technique is borrowed from wasps as they have perfected the delicate and durable art of constructing nests by using wood pulp. If that is not enough, in some parts of the world, wasps are sold in thousands to perform the job of eco-friendly eco-warriors and keep agricultural pests at bay. Next time you encounter a wasp give it some respect instead of smacking it like a housefly.