When it comes to pollinators, we prize bees for performing crucial ecosystem services. But there’s another undervalued and often maligned bee relative that also deserves praise: wasps. 

Some 33,000 wasp species pollinate at least 960 different kinds of plants—164 of which are completely dependent on them, according to a new study published in Biological Reviews. The authors compiled evidence from more than 500 academic papers to show the contributions wasps make to ecosystems and how they benefit the economy, human health and society. 

The economic value of their pollination services to agriculture alone is valued at greater than $250 billion per year worldwide. But wasps are also top predators of crop-damaging insects like aphids, and their value as crop protectors is worth at least $416 billion annually worldwide. Unfortunately, hatred for wasps runs deep because of widespread ignorance of their role, says lead author Seirian Sumner from the Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research at University College London. 

Plants that are completely dependent on wasps for pollination include some orchid species that have evolved adaptations to attract the wasps they rely on, such as an appearance that mimics the back end of a female wasp. Other wasps are generalists that visit a wide variety of plants, which means they could serve as “backup pollinators” if a plant’s primary pollinator disappears.

Additionally, wasp venom and saliva have antibiotic properties, and yellowjacket venom has shown promise in treating cancer. 

But as with other insects, climate change and habitat loss are causing many wasp species to decline, making the need for habitat protection—and understanding—all the more urgent.

 

Photo credit: USFWS/Jim Hudgins

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