It seems that most people avoid making friends with wasps. A scientific study published in the journal Economic Ecology revealed that most people in a survey described wasps with negative terms such as “sting” and “annoying.” As the author notes, humans consider wasps with “the same lack of empathy they feel for spiders and scorpions.” The best-known feature of the wasp is its sting, which can be mild or powerfully painful. Pain may fade quickly or cause a throbbing ache lasting several days. Wasp venom gives wasps a bad reputation, but actually honeybees are more dangerous.

Wasps belong to the insect order Hymenoptera (membrane wing), having four transparent wings with no scales. This order also includes the bees and ants. The name “wasp” is often used confusingly for many hymenopterans. This book contains a full discussion of which ones are correctly identified as wasps; those that belong to the family Vespidae, which includes social wasps (yellow jackets); and paper wasps. There are about 4000 vespid species worldwide, carnivorous predators on other insects and grubs and a significant source of protein as prey for frogs, crabs, skunks, and many small birds. Their nesting and colony behaviors are complicated and include a caste system. Although not widely known in this regard, wasps are also pollinators for many flowers.

Readers will enjoy the ingenious descriptions of the wasp sting, its construction and action, as a “complicated piece of biological machinery” that is, among other things, a factor in defending the wasp nest. Also very interesting are the profound accounts concerning wasp venom, its chemistry, effects on humans, connections to historical eras and historical figures including Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra, and Plutarch, and the various remedies used to treat wasp stings. There is even the possibility that wasp venom might eventually be used to fight cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other conditions.

A fascinating chapter on wasp colors discusses their evolutionary significance, their protection from predators, and their emphasis on black and yellow, among other things. When most people reflect on wasps, they think of their nests, described as a “marvel of ingenious industry.” There is much beauty and variety in the charming paper structures fashioned by these colonies of vespid artists. A delightfully illustrated chapter reveals how these nests are created and used. Jacob C. Shäffer, the first person to make paper from wood, was inspired by wasps.

Wasps are found in more places than paper nests. These include numerous paintings, trading cards, playing cards, striking poetry, folk songs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Hornets Nest,” embroidered samplers, family coats of arms, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the observations of Aristotle, Aristophanes’ play The Wasps, an anatomically correct wasp costume for 1907 London play The Wasp Woman, a 1959 movie about a wasp/woman chimera, and a Monty Python hymn parody.

The book is not funny, but light humor and captivating wit are found scattered throughout its pages. A clever wasp limerick, other humorous poetry, a mention of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, and a comical cartoon involving a wasp at a nudist beach are some of the amusing features to be found.

A sampling of items the reader will find in this book includes the following:

  • the connection between wasps and warning signs for explosives, electric shocks, and slippery floors

  • a noteworthy discussion of the reproduction of wasps, including mating, genetics, and life history

  • how a wasp sting might induce an anaphylactic response

  • why diesel locomotives, race cars, warships, aircraft carriers, and a musical instrument were called wasps

  • the biblical references supporting the idea that wasps are sources of pain and misery

  • the warning alarm from a wasp sting that enlists other wasps to help protect the nest

  • the connection between wasps and women’s fashion in the 1800s

  • how wasps air condition their nests

  • the surprising results of studies when Israeli researchers gave LSD and amphetamines to wasps

  • connections to wasps in the literature of Geoffrey Chaucer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, and Jonathan Swift

Wasp, packed with fascinating information, is a well-researched, brilliantly written, and lavishly illustrated book of the type you don’t want to put down. The incredible amount of detail suggests an appropriate alternate title, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Wasps but Were Afraid to Ask.” It is suitable for high school, college, and adult readers. In addition to an index, the book includes a time line, a detailed list of citations, a bibliography, and a list of associations and websites.

Richard Lord
Retired Biology Teacher
Presque Isle High School
Presque Isle, ME 04769
rnlord@aol.com