Whether you find these stinging insects a nuisance or a fascination, there is no denying that the diets and lifestyles of wasps are intriguing! We’ll be covering everything from wasp colonies to spider wasps and cicada killers.
The diet of wasps is incredibly diverse – as a group they consume a broad range of materials including other insects, meat, fruit and nectar, but the type of food they eat depends on their stage of life.
While adult wasps only feed on sugary substances, wasp larvae feed on a high-protein diet of other insects and meat, provided to them by the adults. Different species also specialise in a range of diets and hunting techniques, informed by the environments they inhabit. Some species are parasites – they hunt and paralyze their prey and serve this fresh meal to their developing larvae!
From tiny solitary wasps to giant hornets, we’ll be exploring the feeding habits and diet content of this diverse group of flying insects.
What Are Wasps?
In order to effectively answer the question “what do wasps eat”, it is necessary to find out a little bit more about the biology of these stripy characters.
Wasps are classified within the suborder Apocrita of the order Hymenoptera. Bees and ants are also classified within this suborder, so we require some identifying features to separate the wasps from the rest:
- A slender petiole (waist)
- Smooth legs and bodies, usually with little hair
- Often, but not always, in possession of a stinger
- Predatory or parasitic
Of the wasp group, you are likely to be most familiar with yellowjackets and hornets which comprise part of the social wasp group, the family Vespidae. There are around 30,000 wasp species identified so far. Only 1000 of these are social wasp species – vastly outnumbered by the solitary wasp group.
Species like yellowjackets can be considered as a pest due to the busy colonies they build, sometimes in close proximity to people’s homes and public areas. This can cause a problem as wasps will fiercely defend their nests if they feel threatened, leading to painful and occasionally life-threatening stings for people or animals that get too close.
Social wasps are often brightly coloured which serves as a defensive device, warning predators to keep away unless they want a painful sting! It is only the females who sport a stinger, which is technically a modified ovipositor (or egg-laying organ).
Every spring, a queen wasp will build a nest, and lay a brood of female workers. This is possible because the queen is fertilized at the end of the previous active season, and hibernates through the winter, waiting to start a new colony in the spring. The workers expand the nest and tend to the queen who is busy continuously laying eggs to grow the colony.
Nests are papery, and usually constructed of wood pulp which has been chewed and regurgitated to form a cluster of cells. Some nests are particularly impressive, such as the nests made by paper wasps (below).
As the name suggests, these wasps do not form colonies, but some of them do build individual nests. Some solitary wasps also possess stingers but tend to use the stingers’ venom to hunt prey rather than defensively as in the case of social wasps.
Often, solitary wasps are also parasitic – the females of most species will dig an underground nest, laying single eggs in solitary cells. The female then hunts for prey (usually other insects), paralyzes them, and deposits them in the nest for the larvae to feed on once hatched – gruesome but effective!
Solitary wasps also chew up wood pulp and other plant materials, and regurgitate them to form papery cells within their nests. These serve to protect individual eggs laid inside.
A wasps’ diet largely depends on the species and the environment it is found in. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some major wasp subgroups within the social and solitary wasp groups and discover their favourite foods and eating habits…
What Do Social Wasp Larvae Eat?
Social wasps like yellowjackets, red wasps and hornets hunt for and dissect other insects to feed to their larvae in the nest. They are not fussy when collecting protein and will take pretty much anything (within a reasonable size range) including:
- Small insects like greenfly and whitefly
- Crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas
- Human foods
For this reason, wasps are actually the gardener’s friend – they catch a massive amount of insects every year, many of which are considered pest species. So the next time a wasp buzzes around your head and irritates or even scares you, focus on the fact they are helping to protect your precious fruits and vegetables, and prized flowers and shrubs! In fact, the agriculture industry in many regions relies on wasps to protect crops from pest insects – wasps may even be deployed artificially to perform this task.
Wasps can be opportunistic – when they come across a dead animal they may take meat in small, bite-sized pieces and deliver it to their larvae.
Additionally, social wasps are not averse to human food and will happily buzz around looking for scraps when you’re outside having a picnic or grill. The adults will be attracted to anything sugary like soda or candy, and anything meaty to collect and feed to their larvae. Luckily there are a few methods you can use to keep them away from your sandwiches and kebabs! Trying to flap them away may only anger them and if they feel threatened they will not hesitate to sting you! One good tip is to cover any food you are not eating to prevent the wasps from smelling it and zoning in. (Find out more here!)
What Do Social Wasp Adults Eat?
Adult wasps themselves feed on sugary substances including:
- Sugary by-products produced by wasp larvae
They will sip nectar directly from flowers, becoming accidental pollinators in the process by transferring pollen from flower to flower. Although they are not as significant pollinators as bees, wasps still play an important role in plant pollination.
Perhaps you are wondering what on earth honeydew is? It may surprise you to find out that honeydew is a sweet, sticky substance produced by aphids and other sap-sucking insects. It is a by-product of their sap consumption and is emitted from the bugs’ rear end. Wasps will feed on this sugary matter directly from a sap-sucker’s backside! If you have ever sat under a tree, or parked your car under a tree and noticed hundreds of tiny, sticky dots appear on you or your car, you have experienced honeydew. Wasps do us all a service in this respect by keeping the sap-sucking insect population in check and reducing the amount of sticky clean-up we need to do.
Similarly, adult wasps will feed on the sugary substances produced by their larvae – this sticky residue is emitted from the rear end of the larvae, and is a by-product of their high-protein diet. Weird, yes, but waste not want not!
Some wasp species also feed on fruit, especially very ripe or rotting fruit. Often in fall they can be found on fallen apples or over-ripe blackberries. If they feed on fermented fruit, they may even become intoxicated! It is best to avoid wasps around fermenting fruit because, when drunk, they can become more aggressive.
Bad news for honey bees: wasps will sometimes invade bee hives to steal their honey! This happens particularly when the bee colony susceptible to invasion due to depleted numbers from disease or a recent swarm. A strong hive will drive wasps away successfully, preventing them from entering. Whereas a weak hive do not have the resources to defend their precious honey stocks from wasp robbery. This is why, in the height of summer, beekeepers may deploy wasp traps to deplete local wasp numbers and protect their beehives from invasion.
What Do Solitary Wasps Eat?
Similarly to social wasps, the adult solitary wasps feed on sugary substances like nectar and fruit. Unlike social wasps, solitary wasps are harmless to people. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for their prey! Solitary wasp larva get fed a great range of food items by their mothers. Many solitary wasps are parasitic species – they feed, or more correctly, they provide their larva with live prey to feed on once they hatch from the egg. There are very many specialised social wasp species, so we will focus on a few of the most fascinating (and grisly!) examples here…
As the name suggests, spider wasps specialise in hunting spiders. There is a large variety of stinging and paralyzing techniques within this group, but generally they will sting the spiders in one or two locations, causing total paralysis. Depending on the species of spider wasp, the immobilised spider will be carried, dragged or even flown back to the nest. Occasionally the spider will die, but usually they survive potentially for weeks until they are feasted on by the emerging larva – a grim end!
More information can be found here.
This typically large-bodied group of wasps specialise in hunting and paralyzing cicadas rather than killing them as the common name indicates. Although they sound threatening, they are harmless to humans as the males cannot sting and the females are not aggressive. Once they have paralyzed a cicada they will fly it back to the nest – a tremendous feat of strength as cicadas are much bigger than cicada killers! – for the larvae to feed on.
More information here.
This solitary wasp subgroup is large and wide-ranging, and hardly looks like a wasp at all! They tend to be relatively small with metallic green or blue coloration. Cuckoo wasps are external parasites – they will lay eggs in the nests of social wasps or bees when the adults are not present. The adults of the host species do not notice the addition of the cuckoo wasps’ egg, and continue as normal, sealing the egg chamber and providing the larvae with food once they hatch. However, the cuckoo wasp larva will outcompete the host species’ larvae either by eating them directly or dominating all the food that is provided. This could be considered as cruel, but wasps are just out to survive and laying eggs in another wasp’s nest is an effective way of continuing your own population whilst making minimal effort to raise your young.
Find out more here.
This incredibly thin wasp group specialises in hunting caterpillars. These soft-bodied larva of butterflies and moths make easy prey in one way – they usually lack defence mechanisms that could affect wasps. On the other hand they tend to be much bigger and bulkier than thread-waisted wasps. Even so, these wasps are strong and determined – once they paralyse the caterpillars they tend to fly, clasping their quarry beneath them to transport it back to their nests. An impressive feat! Once installed in the nest, the thread-waisted wasp females will lay eggs on the paralyzed caterpillar and leave it there as a live meal, ready for when the larva hatch…gulp!
More information to read here.
Usually brightly coloured and fairly large, the Scoliid wasps are parasitic on the larvae of scarab beetle species living in the soil. The female will either dig into the soil to find the beetle larva, or scuttle down an existing tunnel. Once located, she will sting and paralyze the larva and lay an egg directly on the larva. Alternatively, she will tunnel further into the soil, bringing the paralyzed larva with her, and deposit it in a new chamber along with her egg. After hatching, the Scoliid wasp larva, yes you’ve guessed the pattern by now, feed on the live beetle larva for a couple of weeks. They then weave themselves a cocoon and are thought to spend the winter further developing inside the cocoon (fuelled by the beetle larva) until they hatch the following summer.
Find out more here.
Wonderful Wasps – A Summary
Today we have learnt that a wasp’s diet depends on if it is an adult or a larva – adults only eat sugary substances like nectar and honeydew, whereas larvae are fed a high-protein diet comprising insects and meat. Social wasps form colonies and construct papery nests which house many larvae. Solitary wasps build individual nests and lay eggs in single, papery egg cells. They are often parasitic – hunting and paralyzing specific insect prey and bringing it back to the nest (alive!) for the larvae to feed on. Wasps will ingest wood and plant materials and regurgitate it to build their nests or egg cells with, so they do not technically eat wood, they just collect it as a building material. If you have seen them on your garden fence, chewing at the wooden planks, they are in the process of nest building.
Wasps form an important part of biodiversity in the ecosystems they are present in. They benefit humans through the depletion of pest insects, protecting our gardens and crops from being overrun. We hope that, now you know more about the way wasps work and their feeding habits, it will help you to understand their vital role and lessen the fearsome reputation they have. Wasps are wonderful!