Do we need wasps?

They attack us as we potter peaceably in the garden. They invade and colonise our homes. They provide us with nothing, except grief. Colin Tudge asks ...

Of course we don't need wasps in any crudely material sense. They do eat other insects that are more directly pestilential, like flies and aphids; but the crop would not fail nor the roses wither for want of them. But we do need wasps, I suggest, as a test case. The conservation of other creatures matters. It cannot succeed if we set out to save only those animals that are of obvious use to us, like cows and honey bees. The urge to conserve must be supported by nothing less than the belief that it is right to look out for other creatures whether or not they are a source of wealth or pleasure and even if, sometimes, they do us harm. Conservation depends upon attitude; and the only attitude that can possibly succeed in the long term is one that welcomes the wasp as a fellow creature, a creature that, as a bonus, happens to be beautiful.

Actually, as a test case, wasps are not very taxing. Although they serve to swell the catalogue of Daily Mail bogies, along with soccer hooligans and Germans, they really don't do us a lot of harm. To be sure, they sting people and sometimes people die because they are allergic, and that is immensely sad. But the "fault" in such cases (if "fault" is an appropriate concept) lies not with the creature but with the human immune system. Like all our biological attributes, our immune system has evolved by natural selection; and evolution by natural selection achieves wonderful results but it does not work to human specification and carries no guarantees. Our immune system does a brilliant job in beating off infection (without it we are merely meat and could rot in one hot fortnight) but sometimes it over-reacts: to pollen, to soap powder, to nylon, to nettles, and occasionally to insect stings. It is a pity, but that's life.

What matters is whether wasps sting people gratuitously; out of malice, or for the fun of it. If they did, we would have a right to take a hard line on them. Well, sometimes it may look that way: "We were just sitting in the garden but we all got stung" as Wendy Cramer of Twickenham told the Sunday Telegraph in August 1995. In such a case (if the good family Cramer really were sitting around as peaceably as they say) we have simply to concede that the behaviour of wasps - like our own immune systems - has evolved, and that evolution does not guarantee perfection.

But again, on the whole, natural selection has done a good job. It has in general geared the aggressiveness of all wild creatures precisely to the level it needs to be. For although we may care to demonise whatever stings and bites - hornets, snakes, sharks, tigers, wolves, spiders - no creature could survive in the world if it were gratuitously vicious. To be sure, cats may play with mice and killer whales with sealions, apparently for no better reason than to hone their reflexes. But unless there is a hopeless mismatch (cats against mice, spiders against bean-flies) then attack involves risk, and natural selection is bound to punish any creature that takes unnecessary risks. A creature that takes more risk than is really required will, in the end, miss out to one with finer judgement.

So it would be most unlikely, indeed impossible, to imagine except through mistake that any wild creature, wasp or otherwise, would attack any other creature unless the attack was necessary for its own survival or that of its kin. The only animals that do take what may seem to be outlandish risks are males in pursuit of mates (when often there is no alternative to high risk, and the risk is justified by high reward) and domestic creatures that are bred or trained to be hyper-aggressive, like fighting dogs. But fighting dogs really are an aberration - the product not of natural but of artificial selection, in effect bred to be insane. As the French Lord Rambure commented before Agincourt (Henry V, III, vi): "That island of England breeds very valiant creatures; their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage". Yet, as the Duke of Orleans pointed out, those "valiant creatures" are just "Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear, and have their heads crushed like rotten apples!" Natural selection could not have produced creatures as daft as that, whether dogs or wasps.

Wasps do not eat people, and neither do they see us as impediments to marriage. So when they strike, it is because they are provoked, as in: "A family's country ramble turned to horror when a little girl fell head first into a wasp's nest" (Daily Mail, 11 August 1994). Not at all pleasant from the human point of view; but not from the wasps' either.

The standard advice when wasps come by is to ignore them; and at least 99.9 per cent of the time, it works very well. Dammit, I would sting you, or at least poke you sharply with whatever was to hand, if you waved your arms and shouted the way people do at wasps. I do take my own advice on this. Last year wasps nested in the Virginia creeper over the front door. On the hottest days they deployed themselves prettily, though with only desultory defensiveness, like the Household Cavalry. Did we panic, like conscientious readers of the Daily Mail? We did not. I and my family merely spoke to them Prince Charlesishly, and they treated us with the disdain that such naffish behaviour deserves. Natural selection worked in this case, as it usually does: no threat, no response. Live and let live. This year the offspring of that nest have built their papery barracks elsewhere, and good luck to them.

But if wasps have potential to do us serious harm and they render us no indispensable good, does it not make sense to do them in? Well, it depends what is meant by "sense". Human beings might occupy this planet for at least another million years and on balance it seems a good idea to try to do so in the company of other creatures. To do this, we have actively to conserve them: we have messed up the world far too much simply to leave what is left to its own devices. We do have to be a little pragmatic: it was surely a good idea to eliminate the smallpox virus. But arguments based purely on pragmatism are very fragile.

Thus "environmentalists" who seek to impress governments that conservation is worthwhile, and the occasional governments that seek to persuade taxpayers to put their money behind it, commonly resort these days to the notion that other creatures are a "resource", generally preceded by the epithet "vital". Thus, we are told, wildebeest attract tourists, Madagascar periwinkles provide drugs to treat cancer (and what other medicinal goodies might lurk out there?), and mangroves provide nurseries for commercial fish.

We are also told, for good measure, that biodiversity leads to ecological stability, and that species-impoverished ecosystems are liable to collapse. Unfortunately the answer to both lines of argument is the one that met those of Lord Copper: "Up to a point".

Thus, wildlife reserves that are protected only by economic arguments must logically fail when challenged by more profitable enterprise. Wilderness may indeed attract foreign currency - but what happens when some prospector finds oil or gold, which attracts even more? Wild plants do provide drugs, but in general the cheapest and surest route to chemical novelty is in the laboratory. Mangroves may shelter fish but mangroves grow on tropical coasts which generate far more cash when turned into marinas, especially when you add a casino. By contrast, for people, mangroves are among the most hostile environments on Earth.

As for the stability argument, the best we can say is "not proven" or at least, "not simple". Tropical forest, with millions of species, is famously prone to collapse while the cedar and sequoia forests of North America look set for 10,000 years although there is only one species of tree per county. No; in the end, the only argument for conservation that is truly robust is the one that makes the totally arbitrary statement that other creatures matter. Why? Because they do.

And that, in the end, is why we need wasps. They sting people, they do not do much for us, but it is a privilege to share the planet with them none the less. If we cannot see that, then nothing is safe.

Colin Tudge's latest book, 'The Day Before Yesterday', will shortly be available in paperback from Pimlico.

What do you think?

Do you need wasps? Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on wasps, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171- 293 2182 no later than Friday morning, and we will print the best comments on a need-to-know basis.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

    £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital