What’s all the fuss about European wasps – what are they, how do you deal with them, what to do if you get stung?

Posted: March 16, 2015 in Popular Culture et al, Science
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wasp nest

The European wasp Vespula germanica is native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. Records show that the European wasp first reached Tasmania in 1959, where it soon became well established. However, it was not until 1977 that the European wasp was first recorded on the mainland in Melbourne.

About a year before the European wasp reached Tasmania, the English wasp Vespula vulgaris was recorded in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It is a close relative of the European wasp and has very similar colour markings. The English wasp has not enjoyed the same success as the European wasp and has only spread to the eastern parts of Melbourne and Gippsland. But for all practical purposes (venom potential, nesting position, biology etc) the European and English wasps may be considered as the same. In the remainder of this article, we only refer to the European wasp, however, many of the comments are equally applicable to the English wasp.

Research has shown that the spread of the European wasp has been greatly aided through hitching rides on human transportation. So the European wasp probably arrived in style by boat or plane!

At present, the European wasp distribution appears to be restricted to the cool and wet climates of coastal southern Australia. It occurs throughout most of Victoria and Tasmania. In country New South Wales, nests have been located at Coonabarabran while several nests have been recorded in south-east Queensland. In South Australia, the European wasp is well established throughout the hills surrounding Adelaide and Adelaide itself. And in Western Australia, it has been recorded from Perth and Albany.

Unfortunately, the European wasp is here to stay in Australia and eradication of this annoying pest is no longer an option. Despite early frantic reports labelling it as a ‘Killer Wasp’, no human deaths have been recorded in Australia. However, we must learn to live with this nuisance or pest and take precautions when eating and playing outside.

First aid

From personal experience, the sting from a European Wasp is more painful than a sting from a honey-bee. We were once stung on the leg when a wasp flew up it when we were making a major presentation at the Studley Park BoatHouse. Needless to say, the event was paused while ice was applied.

For most people, a painful reminder of the sting, sometimes lasting several days, is the only after-effect they will suffer.

Applying an ice-pack to the sting site helps reduce the pain and swelling. The ice-pack should contain a mixture of ice and water rather than placing ice directly on the skin.

Some sting victims may have a hypersensitive reaction, while others who have suffered several stings, may develop an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions to a sting may involve puffiness of the skin extending well beyond the sting site, or the development of an asthma-like condition making breathing difficult or, in severe cases, the heart may stop beating.

wasp applying ice using inhaler

If a victim is suffering breathing difficulties, then a salbutamol inhaler (‘Ventolin’) should help breathing. Needless to say, if this does not settle the problem, an ambulance should be called immediately.

When a known wasp-allergic person is stung on a limb, the recommended first-aid treatment is the same as for snake bite, ie. the pressure-immobilisation technique.

The limb is kept still while a bandage is wound around the sting site. Wrap the bandage around the limb a few time away from the heart side of the sting (ie. towards the fingers or toes), then firmly wrap as much of the limb as possible bandaging upwards to the groin or shoulder.

applying bandage applying bandage

The wrapping pressure should be firm but not constrictive. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Never apply a tourniquet.

Locating a Wasp Nest

The easiest way to confirm a European wasp nest is to see a stream of yellow and black wasps flying in and out of some site.

European wasp nest site

European wasps usually forage for food within 50 to 250 metres of their nest, although in some instances they have been recorded flying several kilometres for food. If you have a large number of European wasps interrupting your outdoors activities, then you can probably assume you have a nest nearby.

Whatever the wild-eyed amongst us might say, do not, under ANY circumstances, seek to deal with a wasp nest yourself, unless you want to risk spending time in hospital from hundreds of stings. Just call a pest control company, for goodness sake.

About 80% of European wasp nests will occur in the ground with the remainder usually found inside buildings.

Why are there so many wasps about right now? In all probability it’s because we’ve had a dry winter followed by a mild, dry summer. No underground flooding has happened to restrain their lifecycle.

Remember, Europeans live with these wasps and have done for centuries. Their sting is nasty, but not deadly. Ice really will help, as will any well-known anti-sting ointment, and if the swelling bothers you perhaps an anti-histamine tablet.

Four key tips:

Stay still.

If you’re afraid of bees and wasps, this may sound as reasonable as eating jelly with chopsticks. But the worst thing you can do when a wasp flies around your head is swat at it. What would you do if someone took a swing at you? Right. So if a wasp comes near you, just take a deep breath and stay calm. It’s just trying to determine if you are a flower or some other item useful to it, and once it realises you’re just a boring, un-tasty person, it will simply fly away.

Think about your garbage.

Wasps love sweet things, like empty soda and beer bottles with dregs in them, and will check out any food waste in your garbage, too. So don’t let food residue build up on your garbage cans. Rinse bottles before throwing them away, rinse your bins well now and then, and always make sure your bins have tight-fitting lids on them to keep wasps away from your garbage. This will substantially cut down on the number of wasps hanging around your home.

Feed your pets indoors

Wasps nests can live on the food you put out for Fido, and his bones. Bring his food bowl inside, and any bones you give him to chew, at least during peak wasp season. It will make it less likely he’ll get stung, too.

Think about what you wear

Wasps are mainly looking for flowers stuffed with lovely nectar. Don’t wear floral prints outside. Dur. There’s a reason bee keepers and pest exterminators wear white: flying insects tend to ignore the colour.

In summary

wasp trapWasps are with us, bugger all we can do about, basically.

It’s essentially pretty simple. Don’t make your home attractive to wasps, and they’ll go elsewhere.

If that’s too hard, then build your own wasp traps with old soda bottles and one-way entries.

The ‘net is full of examples, just look around, or you can buy them at hardware stores, too.

Be aware that spraying wasps with some knock-down glop may or may not help defend you. They don’t succumb as quickly to popular insecticides as flies, for example. And you should be aware that a downed wasp may or may not be dead, and their stinging mechanism is one of the last things to decline as they die. Also, the Queen is popping out new wasps much faster than you can kill them, so it’s probably a fruitless effort, unless you can locate the nest and remove it. Ignoring them may take resolute willpower, but it’s probably the way to go.

One old wives solution is possibly good advice, as it they often are. If you’re picnicking, and there are wasps around, then locate a small quantity of something sweet and attractive 25 yards or so from where you’re sitting. My Mum always used to use a piece of cardboard with jam smeared on it. Worked a treat.

Just be careful out there.

 

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Comments
  1. gwpj says:

    Ah, yes, wasps. Nasty critters, as my wife and I remember from our home owning days in Seattle, where we used to get them nesting up under the eves, in the unused part of the attic, in a bird house and in one of our gardens. Spent a lot of money on exterminators who exterminated all but the ones in the bird house, which we took care of on our own one night. I slipped a very large dark plastic bag over the birdhouse, secured it airtight to the steel pole on which it sat, and let nature take its course. Cruel sort I was, but the method was very effective. Twelve months later we removed the bag. A few weeks later a bird couple took up residence and raised their brood.

    Like

  2. Pat A says:

    ” So don’t let food residue build up on your garbage cans. Rinse bottles before throwing them away, rinse your bins well now and then, and always make sure your bins have tight-fitting lids on them to keep wasps away from your garbage. This will substantially cut down on the number of wasps hanging around your home.”

    I’m horrified to read this Yolly – don’t Australians wash out all glass and plastic and recycle it along with paper, cardboard and tins – and food waste in another container! Your remark does imply that they don’t….

    Like

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