The European or German wasp (Vespula germanica) is a comparatively recent arrival to our shores, having first appeared in Tasmania in 1959. European wasps were recorded in Melbourne in 1977 and have since spread throughout southern and eastern parts of the country; fortunately, their distribution seems to be restricted by climate. The closely related English wasp (Vespula vulgaris) was first detected in the suburbs of Melbourne in around 1958, but this species has not enjoyed the same success, and its spread has been extremely limited.
Why are these creatures such dangerous pests?
The European wasp is a highly efficient, opportunistic and indiscriminate predator and scavenger, with a diverse diet. It will predate on a wide variety of insects and spiders and can outcompete many other animals for food, posing a threat to indigenous wildlife wherever it has been introduced. Known to kill pets and even livestock, the wasps will raid beehives for honey and bees, and decimate fruit crops. This notorious species has become a widespread pest; in New Zealand, it has been responsible for local extinctions, as well as completely altering food webs, particularly in the beech forests of the South Island.
In Melbourne, these destructive insects have become an increasingly troublesome domestic nuisance, especially during late summer and early autumn. The wasps often nest in or near human habitation. They will scavenge upon garbage and are powerfully attracted to meat, fruit and sugary drinks, which is why they are prone to frequent picnic and outdoor dining areas. European wasps possess a more aggressive demeanour than bees; their sting is more painful, and they will vigorously defend their nest against anything that is perceived to present a threat. The wasps can sting repeatedly, causing swelling and an excruciating burning sensation, whilst also releasing pheromones that encourage other wasps to join the fray. European wasps are infamous for sneaking inside unattended soft drink cans, making them the ultimate unwanted barbecue guests!
But it gets worse!
In the wasps’ natural range, the old queens die off in autumn, signalling the collapse of the colony and the disintegration of the nest. But in the milder climate of countries like Australia and New Zealand some nests can survive into a second season, resulting in massive colonies containing multiple egg-laying queens. In 2015, a two-year-old subterranean nest with a girth of more than three metres was excavated in northern Tasmania. Giant nests may contain more than 100,000 wasps and can have a profound effect on local environments.
So, if European wasps invade your property, it is essential to get rid of them before the nest is allowed to reach nightmarish proportions! But in our experience, many people get European wasps confused with honey bees. Remember, bees are important pollinators and spend much of lives their lives visiting plants and flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Although adult wasps may occasionally consume nectar and pollen, and be drawn to overripe fruit and sugary substances, they are essentially predatory, and prey on or parasitise insects. Bees have robust, rounded bodies with flattened legs to collect pollen, while wasps have cylindrical bodies, with a narrow waist connecting the thorax to the abdomen, and slender legs. European wasps also construct papery nests that are typically located underground.
How do you safely destroy a European wasp nest?
The short answer is that it’s best you don’t! There are a wide variety of preparations that are claimed to be effective in eradicating wasp nests, including non-specific commercial insect sprays, dusts, boiling water, and water mixed with a little soap, shampoo or peppermint oil. It is generally recommended to destroy the nest at night, when the wasps are far less active. However, the elimination of a nest – particularly without an efficacious pesticide – can prove to be a difficult and lengthy process. Any act of aggression is destined to provoke an immediate and hostile defensive response, so unless you possess a fully protective suit and are entirely confident that you can deal with the infestation, it is always far safer and easier to call in a professional. Experienced specialists will quickly and safely remove your wasp problem. We use a special preparation of organic dust which kills the pests humanely.
There are also a number of simple precautions that can be employed around the home to avoid attracting wasps. Cover food outdoors and always use straws in drink containers; make sure all your bins have lids and remove fallen fruit.