Why I matter

Seirian Sumner gives voice to a creature of amazing ecological value that humans usually consider a pest and the stinging scourge of summer picnics.


I matter to you because I am one of nature’s most important pest controllers. I am a hunter. I hunt the spiders that terrify you in the rainforests of Northern Australia. In the endless savannahs of Africa, I feast on the flies that carry your diseases. In the peppered meadows of England, I hunt the bugs that suck the phloem from the flowers you so admire. I matter because without me, wherever you are in the world, you may be beset with plagues of flies, armies of spiders, teaming masses of locusts, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, flies, flies. And for you, the suburban dweller, I am your backyard’s housekeeper: I pluck the aphids as they siphon the life from your tomato plant; I hunt the caterpillars as they devour your garden crops.

I matter to you, the crop farmer, especially in Africa, Asia, Latin America. I am part of your solution to providing food for your family, your livelihood. You may not know this yet: I am your route to sustainable agriculture. You know that those chemicals you spray on your crops are bad both for your own health and for nature’s; an indiscriminate chemical death sentence – slow or fast – for the little things that run the world. I understand, this is survival: your family, your children need that crop to grow, not to be gnarled and withered away by a worm-like caterpillar. I can help. I do help when you turn away and don’t notice me. Let me do my work: let me pluck those juicy worms from your crops. Let me feed my babies so you can feed yours. I help when I am incognito; living alongside you, among you, undiscovered. If you find me, you kill me. I understand why. Next time: don’t! Let my kind live: we’re on your side. Work with us, not against us. Use us. It’s a win-win. A mutualism of the Anthropocene.

I matter because my kind are resilient. We do not fear you. This annoys you. We are largely unbothered by that interminable noise you make, that constant droning hum, rattle, buzz you do, that drowns out the symphony of nature. We hitchhike on your time-bending, time-stretching use of fluorescence and electrons: you turn the night sky into day, bedazzle our prey into easy pickings 24/7. Thank you. We notice the chemicals that you spray around like cheap perfume, and some of us die. But we are strong in numbers and our diverse hunting strategies mean we rarely binge on any single toxin-tanked prey. You might have taken away some of the natural nesting habitats that secured the success of our ancestors, but you’ve provided us with new ones: your loft, shed or barn make excellent nurseries for our hordes of babies. You hate our resilience, pestilence, tenacity, belligerence.

Well-oiled machine

Some of my kind function as a machine. I matter even though I am a tiny cog among many thousands in the most perfectly oiled machine you can imagine. You have made factories; industries that churn and churn, eating the planet’s resources with your efficiency. This is your success. And your doom. Well done. But my kind, we did this millions of years before you. We are masters (or, more correctly, mistresses) of the factory line, the dividers of skills and successes, breaking down the ultimate task of life into small, precise segments that deliver efficiency, perfection, no space or time for error. Millions of years of evolution have honed that factory-conveyor-belt of labour to perfection. You can learn a lot from us, if you only take the time to care, to watch, to marvel. Yes, we are a marvel. We are a superorganism. We rival your largest factories, your cities, your modern society, with our co-operativeness, division of labour and efficiency.

I matter because I am not a bee, but I am the original bee. The bees are my descendants, my evolutionary successors who have forgotten how to hunt. They are a vegetarian version of me. In the push-pull of natural selection, some of our kind lost their taste for meat, their babies adapted to a new diet of pollen and nectar, and the bee was born. But there is nothing redundant about my kind; we remain more numerous in species than our new cousins: for every bee species, there are at least five different species of my kind. And yet we are overlooked by you. You love our cousins, you plant special flowers and even make special houses for them. You do this because you understand and value their usefulness to you, your society, your wellbeing, your food. But my kind were pollinating plants millions of years before the bees: today, we matter to over 700 species of plants from more than 100 families. Some plants, like orchids, depend on us, not bees, for reproduction. They have evolved to deceive us, lure us in as sexual decoys; smothered with pollen we flit from lure to lure. Pollinating. But remember this: bees pollinate because we pollinate. Bees, as our descendants, inherited our need to visit flowers for sugar; they evolved a new use for the pollen found in flowers, to raise their babies. Thank us for the pollinators you love.

I matter to the future cancer patient because of the chemicals I produce. My venom is an untapped pharmacy, a complex cocktail of toxins, allergens, enzymes and amines. Evolution has equipped me with this pharmacological toolkit. Some of my kind use these chemicals to suspend life, turning living prey into helpless sacks of nutrition for hungry babies; others use these toxins to defend their fortresses from predators. I make a potent peptide – a mastoparan – which explodes cell walls, irreparably, causing cell death. I make this to defend myself and my society. You are learning to harness the power of my venom; my mastoparans are more toxic to cancer cells than normal cells. I matter quite a lot to you, the future cancer patient.

I matter to you all because I am a wasp.

Seirian Sumner (aka @waspwoman) is a Professor of Behavioural Ecology at University College London. She studies the ecology and evolution of wasp behaviour and runs the citizen science project bigwaspsurvey.org.