Last week, I received a copy of Heather Holm’s book on wasps – her latest masterwork. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I actually got the book as a thank you gift for giving a presentation, but I was planning to buy it anyway.
Wasps have an undeserved bad reputation among some people. It’s probably because when people think of wasps, they envision one of the relatively few species that aggressively defend their nests (the nerve!) when others, including humans, get too close. Dismissing all wasps because of a few aggressive ones is kind of like giving up on Mexican food because you don’t like cilantro.
In reality, it’s estimated there are more than 100,000 wasp species in the world; many more, by the way, than the estimated 20,000 species of bees. As with bees, most wasp species have a solitary lifestyle, in which a single female builds a nest, lays eggs, and provides food for them by herself. Many wasps are pollinators, but they are much more than that. While parents might be nectar feeders, the babies are carnivores. As a result, most wasps hunt down invertebrates for their larvae to eat, making them incredibly important regulators of insect and spider populations. Holm explains that wasps are the evolutionary ancestors of bees. Bees just gave up carnivory and focused solely on feeding nectar and pollen to their kids.
I’ve long been fascinated by wasps, and have tried to learn what I can, but I’ve mostly had to do so by hunting down scattered bits of information. Holm’s book brings together a wealth of knowledge into one place. In fact, the first thirty pages of her book packs in so much material, I’ve already read it several times – not because it’s poorly written, but because I wanted to absorb it all. She goes through the various categories of wasps and talks about their nesting and hunting strategies, diet selection, and much more. I learned, for example, that some wasps use vibration (like a jackhammer) to excavate nest tunnels. Others carry soil and water separately and then mix them together when constructing aboveground mud nests.
After the terrific introductory chapters, Holm then moves into the main chapters of the books, in which she details the descriptions and lives of several hundred wasps. That’s only a small selection of North America’s wasps, of course, but it covers many of the common species most of us will see around us. The book focuses mainly on aculeate wasps (narrow waisted wasps) because, I assume, doing any more would make the book too heavy to lift. It’s a hefty book as is, but not in a way anyone could complain about.
One of the delightful discoveries I made through Holm’s book is that many wasp names are basically short stories that include both physical description and life history of the creature. Examples: Half-belted Blue-black Spider Wasp; Smoky-winged Beetle Bandit Wasp; Robust Katydid-hunting Wasp; Foggy Treehopper-hunting Sand Wasp. If you learn the name, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what it looks like and what kind of prey it feeds to its kids!
After supper over the weekend, I grabbed the book before the kids had left the table, and offered to randomly open it and tell them about whatever wasp species was on that page. The kids were skeptical, but by the time I finished reading about the Wood-boring Mason Wasp (Euodynerus foraminatus) and the way it brings paralyzed caterpillars to its larvae inside a tree stump, they were willing to hear about another one. Then I told them about cuckoo wasps, which wait for other wasps to leave their nest hole and then sneak in and lay their own eggs inside. They are the cowbirds of the wasp world! I could tell the kids were fascinated by the way they were slowly backing out of the room…
Look, I don’t really do book reviews on this blog, and I’ve turned down a number of requests to do so. I was not asked to write anything about this particular book – I just couldn’t contain my excitement about finding such a tremendous resource on a group of insects I’ve always wanted to learn more about. Buy the book or don’t – it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I can tell you, though, you won’t be disappointed if you do. And if you don’t, how will you learn about the Eastern Ant-Queen Kidnapper Wasp?