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27 march 2020

"Most people have not been stabbed with acid-dipped daggers or branded with red-hot pokers," writes Richard Jones, "but almost all will have been stung by a wasp at some point" (27).

I have been stung by wasps several times in my life, but most memorably at a train station on a warm fall afternoon in 1983. I was commuting home from my job teaching English at an exclusive women's college. I'd loosened my tie and my collar, and somehow a wasp infiltrated my neckline and began to stab me in the neck. To get the wasp out I had to take off my shirt, shake it frantically, and hop around the platform, all the while hoping that the Dean of Freshmen wasn't around to see me gyrating half-naked in public. For decades afterwards, I always kept my collar-button fastened, no matter how hot I got.

Of course, given that that was the worst thing wasps did to me in sixty years alive, and that the hurt was far more embarrassment than injury, wasps probably aren't as bad as I've since painted them. Much of Jones' book reads as a defense of wasps against human prejudices like mine. Wasp stings hurt, for sure, but unless you are allergic, they hurt less than bee stings, which are barbed and detach the stinger from the bee so that it can keep pumping venom into you. Nor are wasps very coordinated in their attacks. If you disturb their nest, they will certainly sting you, but unlike bees, they don't communicate well among themselves about a plan of attack. Best of all, hornets (which are just really big kinds of wasp) are the gentlest hymenoptera of all, and apparently the bigger the hornet, the nicer.

What is "the point of wasps," Jones imagines a reader asking (142), and he answers that wasps are apex predators. This allies them with wolves and sharks, though the depredations of wasps occur on a smaller scale. Wasps are major predators of other insects, keeping pests under control. A modest wasp population can prevent the burgeoning of huge fly populations.

But wasps look unpleasant. Their black-and-yellow marking is a natural danger sign that has spread into many a human culture. They are insouciant, they like to sample human food, and they buzz nastily. Their many spectacular achievements – an intricate social order, fabulous architectural skills, the literal invention of wood-pulp paper – are typically ignored so that folks like me can freak out when a single wasp messes with his summertime sandwich.

Wasps, says Jones, don't figure much in heraldry, and make few benign appearances in song or legend. Wasp is a reliable name for a warship, but few pleasure craft are so called (except the ubiquitous Italian scooter). WASP as an acronym is about a wash: it stood for a feisty group of female pilots during the second world war, but it is also one of the few disparaging terms for establishment Anglo-Americans.

Jones scrapes up a few wasp mascots from sport, but misses others. To be fair, he was probably looking just for the name Wasps, which seems to be associated only with a couple of English football clubs (140). But Hornets are more popular, representing Charlotte in the NBA and giving their name to many an American college team. Most famous of all are a couple of distinctly wasp-y squads called Yellow Jackets: Georgia Tech, of course, but also an old NFL franchise that played in north Philadelphia and were called the Frankford Yellow Jackets. I mean, Eagles is an OK name, but wouldn't it be the coolest thing in sports if the main rival of the Giants and Cowboys were called the Frankford Yellow Jackets.

Jones, Richard. Wasp. London: Reaktion, 2019.