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May 28, 2018 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

The Vulgar Wasp

I have held out on writing a review of this book so I could fit it into the sustainability issue of Salient, even though I have been dying to review it. As someone who passed Year 11 Science by one credit, I am naturally not a fan of science non-fiction, because I usually have no goddamn idea what anybody is talking about. But with the latest science non-fiction publication from VUP, The Vulgar Wasp, by Victoria University’s own Dr Phil Lester, I was completely surprised and completely enthralled.

Lester’s book is the “story of a ruthless invader and ingenious predator”, the Vespula vulgaris, or the common wasp. 99% of us hate them, most of us are probably afraid of them, and some are even allergic and could die from their sting. They attack other insects and birds, destroy crops, and inflict a huge amount of damage to our environment and economy every year. Their ability to invade, adapt, and dominate entirely new ecosystems and environments is frightening. The level of destruction they do is horrifying but undeniably impressive. Their methods to attack and kill their prey have evolved to a diabolical level of efficiency. Wasps are basically the insect public enemy number one. But Lester has also convinced me that these elements make them awe-inspiring and amazing.
Lester devotes the first few chapters of the book to the history of the common wasp, how it was transported around the world (as it is native to Europe, and was introduced to New Zealand by humans transporting goods), and how its introduction has altered and impacted New Zealand’s ecosystem and economy.
Lester also seamlessly intertwines in other information and histories about so many other wasp species, bees, and other insects so I found myself not only learning about the common wasp, but so many other connected subjects that I would have never researched or heard of before.

My favourite chapter of the book was chapter 4, “A cocktail of nastiness”, which discussed the effect wasp stings have on humans. Learning about previous experiments to see how deadly a sting could be, or to see what the most effective cures are, was extremely interesting and even comical at times. Lester also debunked a lot of myths for me about what to do when stung (which is pretty much don’t pee on it) and broke down the probability of death by wasp sting (which is also not that likely, but still… don’t fuck with wasps).
The second section of the book focused on the future, and what to do about the wasp problem. Large scale pest control is a mighty task at hand, and Lester’s proposals are incredibly interesting and thought provoking.
One of the best things about The Vulgar Wasp is Lester’s sharp wit. The level of sass and sarcasm throughout Lester’s writing made the book completely accessible and consumable. There are even a few laugh out loud moments.
Sure, I skimmed some of the more meaty paragraphs when the mathematical and scientific terms dominated and I could not be bothered checking the glossary notes. This is still a scientific book, but these paragraphs were few and far between.
Lester’s ultimate strength is that I, Achieved Minus in NCEA Level 1 Science Alex Feinson, could follow along, and even learnt a hell of a lot. His serious yet comical writing made this totally foreign topic accessible, digestible, and interesting. Lester and his wasps have absolutely inspired me to consider reading more science non-fiction books in the future.


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