Country Diary: Wood wasp is often mistaken for a hornet

Giant wood wasp
Giant wood wasp

Zooming into our lives recently, darted an awesome giant wood wasp, or greater horntail! Being one of our largest wasps, with black and yellow body and huge ovipositor, it may easily have been mistaken for a hornet. Although mainly found in woodlands, the insects often emerge from wood stacked in timber yards. Michael’s timber had just been collected from there.

It was quite harmless. The female’s ovipositer is used like a drill, as she lays her eggs in pine trunks. The developing larvae feed on the timber. However, the large Ichneumon seeks them. It uses its own immensely long ovipositor to lay its eggs in the larvae of the wood wasp, and parasitises them. Is nothing safe?

Settling on a stone, it began cleaning its bright yellow antennae, and matching yellow legs, before departing.

Wandering around Scarborough’s castle, reminded us of the legendary Granny Bullen. She was well known to fishermen in her day, on account of her searching the castle dykes for herbs.

Collecting the common mallow, which is quite an attractive plant one can find growing on roadside verges and waste ground, she took them to her little house on Castle Road, where the modernised Wilson’s Mariners’ Dwellings stand today. She no doubt admired the rose-pink flowers about two inches across, with five narrow, dark-veined petals. Perhaps she knew the mallow was related to the handsome hollyhock and exotic hibiscus. Whatever the attraction, she made all her own ointments and medicines from local herbs. Fishermen went to Granny Bullen for help in healing aches and pains, and sore wounds. She asked only coppers for her healing balms. Apparently young mallow shoots were eaten as a vegetable into Roman times. In medieval days, mallow had a reputation as an anti-aphrodisiac, promoting calm, sober behaviour. More recently, mallow leaves were used to draw out wasp stings. The gum-like sap was made into poultices and soothing ointment. Many years ago, we discovered a small colony of stinking iris. It grew beside the hedge up Ganton Hill, and there was no doubt as to why it was so-called! The small iris is sometimes called the stinking gladdon. [The Latin word ‘gladiolus’ means a sword, and refers to the shape of its evergreen leaves.] We’ve returned to the site, quite aware that the slate-grey flowers with purple veins would have bloomed, but hoped we’d find the leaves.

Sadly, the site was very overgrown, yet I could detect the aroma of the leaves. Michael managed to find one stalk, bearing a single club-shaped capsule of bright green. It was just an inch (5cm) long, and when ripe will split into three segments, to expose rows of bright scarlet seeds inside.

Crushing a leaf reveals a smell of roast beef! It’s so very convincing that it had our Yorkie, Jasper leaping for joy. We prefer to use the lily’s alternative name of roast beef plant!