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They may have a bad reputation, but wasps are useful critters

Q.  As far back as the fourth century B.C., Aristotle lamented the shortcomings of Greece’s young people, saying “They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it.”  On to the present, and the old continue to complain about the young.  What accounts for this?

A.  In a recent study, researchers John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler measured older Americans as to their intelligence, authoritarian tendencies and enthusiasm for reading, says Ted Scheinman in “Smithsonian” magazine.  They observed that respondents “believe that children are especially deficient on the traits in which they happen to excel.”  For example, the more intelligent are more likely to say that young people are getting stupider, despite decades of rising intelligence worldwide.

Flawed memory is at the heart of the “kids these days effect,” researchers say.  “Sometimes older people mistakenly recall that kids in the past were more accomplished than today’s kids, who suffer by comparison.”

As Protzko puts it, baby boomers whom youngsters blame for despoiling the earth (“OK, boomer”) “can take comfort in knowing that members of Generation Z will one day hear the inevitable: ‘OK, zoomer.’”

Q.  All hands on deck for this one:  Do you know the meaning of these hand-related words: “handfast,” “repugnant,” “ironfisted,” “deadhand” and “backhanded”?

A.  “Handfast,” from Old English “handfaesten” (to pledge or betroth) refers to “a contract or agreement, especially about a betrothal or marriage,” says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  Earliest documented use is 1275.  “Repugnant” derives a hand connection from the Latin “pugnus” (fist) and from the Latin “repugnant” (contrary, opposed).  The word means “distasteful,” “offensive” or “objectionable.”

“Ironfisted” has a double meaning: “ruthless,” alluding to someone wielding a crushing fist; or “stingy,” suggesting a hard-to-open fist clenching money.  And “dead hand” is a literal translation of “mortmain” and can mean “a stifling influence,” especially of the past on the present; or “the perpetual ownership of property” by the church or other institutions. 

Finally, the metaphorical sense of “backhanded” comes from “the image of a hand facing backward being indirect or hiding something.”  Hence, it describes something sarcastic or ambiguous, having a double meaning, as in this example: “You’re prettier in person.”  “I think what you meant to say is ‘you’re really ugly in photos.’”

Q.  Wasps are one of the least loved animals, but why might it be time for a rebranding?

A.  “Far from being bothersome and vindictive, they make valuable contributions to ecosystems, the economy, and even our health, says entomologist Richard Jones in “New Scientist” magazine.  Though many people equate wasps with yellow jackets, these social insects comprise less than 4% of more than 110,000 known wasp species.  Under a third are stinging and predatory, the remainder being parasitic.   

Surprisingly, although honeybees are the prime pollinators of many cultivated fruit crops, wasps and other insects pollinate most wild flowers.  In fact, some plants rely exclusively on wasps, including almost 100 species of orchids.  More directly beneficial to humans, wasps are also the third most important predators of insects after birds and spiders, targeting woodlice, flying beetles and more, and attacking many serious crop pests.  “A mature wasp colony is reckoned to take between 3000 and 4000 prey a day at the height of the season.”  Even a wasp’s venom may prove a useful source of medicine:  with its antibacterial and antiviral qualities, it can inhibit the development of a parasite that causes Chagas’ disease, and further testing may uncover treatments for neurological conditions, allergies and cardiovascular disease. 

Finally, wasps are affected by climate change and widespread use of pesticides, making them “good indicators of environmental stress.”  Concludes Jones: “It is time we stopped demonizing wasps and learned to love them.”

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