A few years ago, I wrote an article on unusual wine stories where I talked about wasps and wine. Did you know that we need to thank wasps for wine? It’s true. Today, we’ll go into much more detail on this stingingly interesting subject. Thank you to listverse.com for originally introducing me to this topic.
What Is the Connection Between Wasps and Wine?
NPR says that “those big scary flying insects whose stings can be especially painful may be the secret to the wonderful complex aroma and flavor of wine.” Why? Because wasps spread a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is the fungus responsible for the initial wine fermentation process.
Why Does This Yeast Need Wasps?
The problem with this yeast is that it only lives on the fruit in summer months and dies off when winter comes. So new grapes have no easy way to get it. But the good news, according to Discover Magazine, is that the guts of wasps provide a safe winter refuge for this yeast. The wasps eat the ripe grape, taking some saccharomyces cerevisiae into their body. Fertilized females hibernate through the winter and start fresh colonies in the spring, feeding their new larvae with regurgitated food, which includes the yeast. When the larvae mature, saccharomyces cerevisiae is naturally present in their system and ready to be reintroduced to the next season’s grapes.
A Few More Juicy Details
ScienceMag.org goes into some really interesting details that I’ll share with you here. Apparently, the yeast doesn’t just sit quietly in the wasp’s intestines. “Different strains of the yeast mingle and mate like crazy inside the guts of hibernating wasps…The fact that [the yeasts] were able to mate inside the wasps means the gut environment could propagate hybrid strains that wouldn’t otherwise occur. The findings suggest that wasps may be much more important than usually thought. ‘What’s often perceived as a pest species by humans can have incredible relevance, not only to our understanding of greater ecology, but in terms of having real commercial and industrial value,’ [Anne Madden, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh] says. ‘What we’re beginning to learn is that there’s wide unexplored world of microbes and bugs—insects, spiders, mites.’”
The article goes on to say that regional wine flavors are influenced in part by microbes, including yeasts. Clearly, there’s room for some fun, tasty experimentation here.
The next time you see wasps at a picnic, very gently encourage them to play with grapes instead of with you.
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