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Highland group gets on its 'bike' to map wasps

By Tom Ramage

Wasps tend to get a bad press and are usually on the business end of a rolled-up newspaper rather than receiving detailed scientific attention – but that could change in the Highlands if one group has its way.

The Saxon Wasp
The Saxon Wasp

For the next few years the Highland Biological Recording Group will attempt to map the distribution of the country's six species of social wasp.

Social wasps are the yellow-and-black ones that can cause fear or irritation if they nest too near to people or intrude on a late-summer picnic.

In the 1980s, two species of wasp, the Saxon and the median (or French) wasp, arrived in the south of England, and spread rapidly north. While the Median has not reached much farther north than the Central Belt, the Saxon is now well established as far as NW Sutherland at least.

Its arrival and spread in Highland went largely un-noticed until 2018, so now HBRG wants to find out just where it has managed to settle, and to get up-to-date information on the status of the other five species which have been here for a long time.

Murdo Macdonald, the HBRG database manager, said: "Like all good foreign invaders, the Saxon Wasp came into Highland under the radar.

"It was first recognised in Scotland in 2013, but by last year it had obviously established across the north. For understandable reasons people are often afraid of wasps, but they are not aggressive unless threatened and mostly just go about their business in peace."

Wasps are regarded by biologists as a valuable part of the wildlife community, playing a part as pollinators and as predators of all manner of smaller insects, some of these pest species.

"That alone should be good enough reason to find out more about them, but there is also concern that the newcomer might out-compete the original species, so we need to know the situation now to monitor changes in future.

"It is not always appreciated just how fascinating these insects are."

• The wasps you see in spring are all queens that have hibernated since the previous autumn.

• Worker wasps are all female, but they never breed. They work tirelessly to keep the nest in good order and feed their younger sisters.

• Only female wasps sting.

• Male wasps have no fathers! They develop from eggs that are not fertilised.

• A wasp nest can grow to over 1 metre diameter, and contain tens of thousands of wasps, though they are usually much smaller.

• A wasp nest is formed from wood chewed to make paper, and has an intricate structure: galleries of cells connected by columns.

• One wasp is a ‘cuckoo’ – it lays its eggs in the nest of another wasp species which cares for its young.

• Britain’s largest wasp is the Hornet, and – amazingly – one nested on the Black Isle in 2014, the only record in the whole of Scotland!

HBRG has information on its website www.hbrg.org.uk (follow the link to Wasp Atlas Project).

" All the records we collect will be passed to the National Biodiversity Network Atlas https://nbnatlas.org, where you can see maps of all our wildlife."

The group has been funded by Scottish Natural Heritage since 2004 to assemble data on plants and animals and they now have almost a quarter of a million wildlife records on the NBN Atlas, data used by nature-lovers, students and scientists all over the world to help their interests and work.

"If you want to contribute to our wildlife database, details are on the HBRG website."

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