Confession time. I am deeply envious of those who live in the Americas. Not because America is home to some of the world’s greatest technological and geological marvels; my envy is because of the wasps, particularly those in the central and southern parts, and especially the social ones — those that live in large colonies, and which provoke the liveliest vocabulary from the politest of people when they intrude uninvited into our human world. My green-tinged American-wasp-envy has just acquired a very generous sprinkling of glitter. This is because you lucky Americans now have a gorgeous, game-changing field guide to your stinging, social beauties. Quite frankly, I am jealous!
The Social Wasps of North America, by Chris Kratzer, is a glorious celebration of the enormous beauty and diversity of social wasps found across the continent, stretching from Greenland and Alaska to Panama and Grenada. The book begins with a chatty, personable crash course in social wasps — their ecology, evolution and behaviour. It also branches into some key concepts in biology — speciation, mimicry, nomenclature, anatomy — an unexpected effort, which may derail some readers as it goes some depth beyond the subject of the book, and so is not entirely essential.
But the meat of the book is marvellous: a whopping 320 pages of captivating images, computer drawn by Kratzer, of over 200 species of social wasps from the 22 genera found across this continent. Kratzer is upfront about the book’s limits as an identification guide, especially with so many similar-looking species. To be certain of many species, you’d need to get a specimen under the microscope. But, as a ‘quick-and-dirty’ field guide (which is what Kratzer set out to do), this book should allow you to narrow it down to two or three closely-related species based on where you’ve found it, its body shape, colour and size. And if you’re lucky enough to spot its nest, information on its architecture and appearance will also help tremendously. The nest of a social wasp gives a lot away about its genus, and it’s a delight to see photos of nests for most genera included in Kratzer’s introduction to each genus (although the quality of these photos is highly variable). There is also a handy barometer of how certain you should feel about your identification being right, based on whether there are other cryptic species to watch out for and whether the species is too understudied to be sure of the colour morph variation. Overall, this is a phenomenal undertaking, a remarkable contribution to the entomology book market, and a boon for the burgeoning community interest in social wasps.
But the intrigue of this book goes beyond that of its subject.
This book is not written by an ivory-tower entomologist with a sandal-brushing beard, but by a 26-year-old female mechanical engineer who is a proud member of the LGBT+ community. Let’s just back up here and regroup. We’ve got an understudied, much maligned group of insects which until now no-one had bothered to provide a user-friendly field identification guide for because (quite frankly) no-one thought anyone cared to get close enough to a social wasp to identify it. Mix this up with an exceedingly clever, innovative female engineer with no university training in biology, and who belongs to a marginalised sector of society — the LGBT+ community. What do we get? Probably the biggest diversity and inclusion shake up (from both an insect and human perspective) that the entomology community has enjoyed for a very long time. Perhaps ever.
Another remarkable thing about this book is the process by which it was produced. It is self-published, under Owlfly LLC Publishing, a company set up by the author. All design, illustrations, writing, research and production is handled by this awesome one-woman-show. The wasp illustrations are computer drawn, the markings replicated from museum specimens of the insects and/or photos in the public domain. The documentation of wasp colouration and markings draw extensively from iNaturalist — an online community of citizen scientists and experts who collectively post and identify species from every facet of the natural world. Credits are provided for these photos, allowing the reader to check them out if desired. The book acknowledges several notable experts who provided advice and direction; I was surprised to see some of the people who are top of my wasp ID experts list omitted. But, short of this, we have to trust that these are correct identifications. And, as Kratzer herself says, it’s a quick-and-dirty field guide; she openly recommends seeking expert help and a good microscope and key to verify a species’ identity for certain.
Kratzer has made all her illustrations open source via Creative Commons CC-BY-SA. This means others are permitted to tweak, remix and build on these illustrations even for commercial purposes, so long as they credit Kratzer and licence their new creations under identical terms so that others can also re-use and adapt your work (that’s the ‘sa’ which stands for ‘share alike’). Open-source wasp illustrations. That’s made my day!
Curiously, each individual wasp species has been given a common name. I was intrigued by this, especially as one species can have many different common names (that’s why we tend to use the scientific names of species rather than the common names). In Kratzer’s words ‘All names have meaning’, and so she has researched the meaning and christened them, based on translations of their scientific names. I rather like this brave move — giving each species its own common name makes them all-the-more relatable. I couldn’t help but smile at the upgraded common name given to my personal long-time favourite wasp, Polistes canadensis — whose common name I knew as ‘Red Wasp’; I will now be making every effort to refer to it as the ‘Ruby Paper Wasp’ to my friends. However, in my personal bid to promote the sunny-sides of wasps, I might pass on calling another of my favourites — Polistes lanio — by its new name: the ‘Butcher Wasp’.
Even if you don’t share my American-wasp-envy, you should still take a look at this book, as I believe it does more than just provide a gorgeous, useable field-guide to one of the most incredible groups of insects on the planet. For me, this book is remarkable in other ways too, from the publishing process to the human behind the book. It made me think about how the field of entomology and the people who ‘do insects’ (‘entomologists’) are presented to the outside world; about how this book may inspire other quietly-gifted insect lovers from diverse backgrounds to step out from the shadows and help redefine who entomologists are; and about the book’s important role in advancing a new era of naturalists who appreciate, rather than fear, the most notorious of insects — the social wasp.
Please can we have a book for Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia now…? And wouldn’t it make a nice app?