“Don’t get me started” was how it all started.
Except it was actually Sally-Ann Spence of Minibeast Mayhem who really set the touch-paper going.
“Reports everywhere of ‘drunk, disorderly and aimless wasps’ having a laugh stinging humans. I’d love to read your take on this”.
Well, my take was that more people ought to get stung by wasps, then they’d realize how petty and pathetic it is to winge on about them. Not my most diplomatic pronouncement, perhaps, but it’s difficult to be completely judicious in the ferociously concise dictate of Twitter’s 140 characters.
This article from the Independent was the sort of thing Sally-Ann probably had in mind. It’s a good thing she doesn’t read the Daily Mail, or she might have stumbled across something like this. Urgh. Ironically, earlier this year the Express was spouting on about the sparsity of wasps. All utter hooptedoodle, of course.
Every year a bunch of hot and bored journalists realize they’ve seen a wasp some time in July, August or September, and the result is a spate of ridiculous articles about wasp plagues, wasp perils, or wasp invasions. It can get rather tedious. I’m not even going to make a list of the straightforward errors of scientific fact that are constantly trailed out.
Last week I was interviewed by ITN simply because they’d noticed all the other news reports about increasing wasp numbers. They were at least open to squashing the doom-laden stories rather than the wasps, and their piece did explain the normal, natural, peaceful reasons behind the seasonal increase in wasp numbers in late summer and autumn.
The Guardian also put out a much more measured article and if anyone wants the biology behind wasp numbers, greater this year, or not, I recommend this as a good place to start.
With my slightly flippant Twitter comment, I wanted to make another point. In the great scheme of things, a wasp sting is really very insignificant. It’s an almost infinitesimal dose of venom, and it’s purpose is simply: ‘Oi get off!’
I know that in (thankfully) extremely rare cases, a single sting can be dangerous — in mouth or throat it can seriously interfere with breathing, or in a particularly unfortunate victim the body’s self-destructive overload of anaphylactic shock can be fatal.
Ordinarily a wasp sting is painful, yes, but no more so than stubbing a toe or shutting your finger in the door. A sharp pin-prick, a localized throbbing, and a dull ache for an hour or so, maybe an itchy tender spot for the rest of the day. It’s actually no big deal. It’s much less painful than a honeybee sting, that’s for sure. But what gives it a more sinister impact is the notion that the wasps are, somehow, after us, that we have been targeted. What becomes anthropomorphized into an evil vicious premeditated attack, is really a normal and natural defensive reaction of a few small creatures in fear of their lives, or their nest.
The trouble is that humans have forgotten what is natural.
A short while ago I was reading Urban Entomology by William Robinson (London: Chapman & Hall), published in 1996. His first paragraph gave some fascinating figures: in 1800 only about 1.7% of the world’s population lived in towns and cities, humans were rural and primarily agrarian; but with the industrial revolution the trend to urbanization was set, by 1950 the urban population had increased to 28% and by 1985 it was 42%. When he wrote the book, he envisaged that by the year 2000 half of the world’s population would be living in towns and cities. In the end this milestone was passed in 2008. We are now, primarily, an urban species. We have left the fields behind and we have forgotten what is natural.
Now I don’t want nostalgia to cloud my argument. I’m not suggesting that pre-urban humanity was living in some golden age of idyllic natural balance. It was not, it was living in an era of disease and pestilence and hardship. But what it did have was a slightly more pragmatic acceptance of some of the more minor ailments by which it was afflicted — things like wasp stings and mosquito bites; house flies, bed-bugs and larder beetles too, come to that. These were all part of the natural environment, annoying they may have been, but they were familiar, part of every-day living, something to deal with, yes, but nothing to worry unduly about.
Modern urban life is about as far removed from natural as you can imagine. Houses are hermetically sealed by double glazing, weather is banished by central heating and air-conditioning, anonymous food is bought in bland packets and locked away in tupperware containers and fridges, we have more clothes and ‘stuff’ than we know what to do with. The natural world is shut out, and that bit closest to us — the garden — is manicured to within an inch of its biodiversity. So when a small part of the natural environment, be it hibernating ladybird, housefly, larder beetle, clothes moth or carpet beetle, comes visiting us indoors, rather than simply getting on and dealing with a few small insects, the now alienated humans see a veritable invasion of dangerous undesirables. Unlike their more pragmatic non-Daily-Mail-reading rural forebears, modern urbanites seemingly don’t know what to do, other than complain, flap about, or reach for the bug spray. It’s the fear of the sting, rather than the sting itself, which is the problem. Is it any wonder that people no longer know how to cope if some wasps are attracted to a few jam sandwiches on the patio? Is it any wonder that needless panic ensues?
Although of a completely different insect, my father tells a revealing anecdote from his childhood. When, in 1944, aged 14, he manhandled a second-hand bedstead through the bombed out streets of Shepherd’s Bush and Paddington on a borrowed costermonger’s barrow, he was pleased with his thrifty purchase, but not at all surprised when blood-spots appeared on the sheets a few days later. These were the tell-tale evidence that he had also carted bed-bugs through west London in his newly acquired furniture. Instead of panicking, or trying to sue someone, he and his mother set about dismantling, stripping, and cleaning the bed, and removing the vermin. Patiently, pragmatically, they coped.