A queen tree wasp chews a vertical strip of wood from boards scarred by visiting wasps.

Country diary: an unpopular pest that plays a vital role

At first it was a mystery – short vertical lines scratched into the wooden panelling on the side of the veranda, like days counted off by a prisoner. The shallow furrows, each several centimetres from top to bottom, covered the bare boards. Some of the marks were dry and old; others appeared to have been scored into the weathered timber more recently.

Sitting outside on a still, quiet day I heard a faint rhythmic scraping sound and inspected the outside of the slats. There at the centre was a wasp, gnawing at the wood and slowly working its way downwards. Beneath its jaws it rolled the fibres into a neat ball as it went, finally tearing off the strip before flying away, leaving a fresh groove among the parallel lines on the panels.

Our familiar black-and-yellow wasps that live in large colonies use wood pulp to create fragile paper nests in which they rear young. Every spring, lone queens that have hibernated over winter begin the process from scratch, raising a new generation that will help with the work until the colony eventually disbands in the autumn.

When the insect returned, I was able to identify it from its smart lemon bands as a queen tree wasp (Dolichovespula sylvestris), one of nine social wasp species resident in Britain. It was impossible to follow its flight path through a neighbouring copse, but somewhere not too far away it would be building a nest among branches, at ground level or perhaps hidden under roof eaves.

Another carpenter joined it on site, only this bulkier companion – around 2cm long – lacked the hi-vis yellow jacket. Its colouring was a dull gold, with brown markings on the thorax resembling those of a hornet. I turned to the entomologist Steven Falk for help with identification, and it turned out to be the French wasp (Dolichovespula media), which he first identified as a new UK colonist in the 1980s. Since then it has spread widely across England, typically constructing its football-sized nests in trees and shrubs.

They may be unpopular, bothering picnickers and besieging beer gardens, but wasps play a vital role in pest control and pollination. I was happy to leave my visitors to their labours, adding their marks to the myriad lines of previous generations etched into the ageing veranda boards.