If people understood the important role of wasps in the ecosystem and economy, they would love them like they do bees, according to researchers at the University College of London.
Wasps not only pollinate like bees, they also eat pests that damage food crops. And most are solitary and not prone to attacking people, unlike the better known and much despised yellowjackets and hornets.
The paper was published recently in the journal Ecological Entomology.
"We have lived in harmony with bees for a very long time, domesticating some species, but human-wasp interactions are often unpleasant as they ruin picnics and nest in our homes," said study author, Seirian Sumner of UCL.
Our dislike of wasps is largely shaped by our experience with social wasps - yellowjackets and hornets -- which live in large groups and are most likely to sting humans. There are 67 species of social wasps, but the vast majority of wasps - in excess of 75,000 species - are solitary and generally avoid people, according to the researchers.
"Despite this, we need to actively overhaul the negative image of wasps to protect the ecological benefits they bring to our planet. They are facing a similar decline to bees and that is something the world can't afford," Sumner said.
The study surveyed 748 members of the public from 46 countries (70% of respondents were from the United Kingdom) on their perceptions of insects, including bees and wasps.
Survey responses showed wasps are universally disliked.
The team also found that wasps are not often chosen for research, which has minimized effort to understand and communicate to the public their role in the ecosystem.
Since 1980, of 908 papers on bees or wasps, only 22 (2.4%) described wasp studies, compared to 886 (97.6%) that described bees. Of 2,543 conference abstracts on bees or wasps from the last twenty years, 81.3% were on bees.
Survey respondents were asked to provide three words to describe bees, butterflies, wasps and flies, and to rank how seeing each insect made them feel regardless of their importance in ecosystems and the environment.
Analysis showed that butterflies receive the highest level of positive emotion, followed closely by bees, then flies and wasps. Overall, bees are more liked than butterflies. The researchers also found that personal interest in nature explained whether people understood the importance of wasps as natural pest controllers and predators.
All insects are under threat from climate change and habitat loss, so the team say that maintaining insect abundance and diversity should be a priority.
"Global concern about the decline of pollinators has resulted in a phenomenal level of public interest in, and support of, bees. It would be fantastic if this could be mirrored for wasps but it would need a complete cultural shift in attitudes towards wasps," added co-author, Alessandro Cini, of UCL and the University of Florence.
"The first step on the way to this would be for scientists to appreciate wasps more and provide the required research on their economic and societal value, which will then help the public understand the importance of wasps," said Cini.