In Review

Book review - Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps by Seirian Sumner

An ‘exuberant guide’ that will make you think again about these oft-overlooked creatures

Few people have a good word to say about wasps, said Constance Craig Smith in the Daily Mail. Unlike “gentle, productive bees”, wasps appear to have little going for them. “They build sinister white nests in our attics and sheds, have a ferocious sting and ruin summer picnics.”

But according to the behavioural ecologist Seirian Sumner, we should become more appreciative. Far from being a “pointless pest”, wasps are, she says, “one of nature’s most secret and neglected gems”.

They are the ancestors of bees (which are really vegetarian wasps), and are much more numerous in terms of species (with around 100,000, against 22,000). Furthermore, they really are very useful: as pest controllers; as accidental pollinators of crops; and even in medical science (studying wasp venom helped researchers figure out why some patients are so badly affected by Covid-19).

Sumner has spent 20 years studying wasps, and Endless Forms is her “exuberant guide”: read this book, and you’ll probably think twice before you “whack the next one you find in your kitchen”.

Sumner has a good eye for the truly horrific details of wasps’ predatory techniques, said John Lewis-Stempel in The Times. She gleefully describes how the emerald jewel wasp “injects a cocktail of literally mind-numbing drugs into a cockroach”, rendering it as “zombified” and pliant – before leading it back to its burrow and feeding it to its babies.

Or there’s the orussid sawfly, said Kate Simpson in the Times Literary Supplement: a type of wood wasp that lays its eggs directly on to beetle larvae so its offspring can “gnaw its way out as an adult”. Sumner’s book also probes “deeper questions” – about why we favour some creatures over others, deem some “good” and some “bad”.

Wasps, it’s true, aren’t as clever as bees, said Steven Poole in The Daily Telegraph. But they’re still surprisingly smart. “They can (scarily) recognise human faces”; so powerful is their sense of smell that they are used to sniff out drugs and explosives. Many live in “highly structured communities”, with nurses, foragers, guards, and even something like “Asbos for undesirable youths”.

They also inspired the invention of paper, at least according to Chinese legend, which holds that the eunuch Cai Lun got the idea from the sight of wasps scraping bark off trees to build their nests.

After reading this “splendidly vivid” book, you may not exactly share Sumner’s love of wasps – “but it would be a tetchy soul who did not grudgingly admire them a bit more”.

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