Back in May in the course of some spring cleaning I moved a chair to get to the outside of the kitchen window, only slowly realizing that I was standing in a cloud of aroused wasps. I tumbled over the deck table, leapt into the parlor, slammed the door, not a single sting. Later I crouched and peered under the deck from a safe distance, eight or nine feet, and spotted the nest: fist sized, recycled-paper gray, subtly textured, anchored by paper pasted up through the gaps between the deck boards clear up onto the cedar leg of the chair I'd moved. Even tiny, the nest was fearsome, its effect on me out of all proportion to its size. It was a rattlesnake coiled, a gun in my face, an imminent crash, a potential disaster you could sit and contemplate at leisure.
I'd always called these critters paper wasps - I must have been taught that I.D. somewhere long ago - and I told everyone I saw for the rest of that day about my paper-wasp nest, a kind of giddy survivor story. No one was too impressed. Who doesn't have a wasp nest? I looked briefly in my bug books and found descriptions: paper wasps are tolerant, not very aggressive, eat rotten fruit. To get stung by one you'd pretty well have to bite its nest. So I grew bold in my nest watching, got close, examined the entrance from a foot away, admired the texture and subtle color variations of the paper. All those years of fear! The insects coming in and out didn't look like wasps to me, fuzzier, for one thing, and yellow striped, too small. But they moved so fast you hardly got a good look. Why had I feared them so? They were like carpenter ants or grasshoppers or beetles, just don't pick one up.
They repaired the damage I'd caused, working in shifts of ten and twenty till they'd fashioned a new anchor that didn't involve the chair (I'm sure if they could have they would have moved it back). And then for two weeks, at least one wasp was always stationed where the chair leg had been, standing on the anchor vigilant, keeping an eye out for the likes of me.
The nest grew fast. Every day Elysia and I walked out on the deck, down the steps, out into the yard, passing only two feet from the anchor, only an inch and a quarter higher in altitude than the top of the nest proper, rattling those boards. Oh, happy gentle wasps! The sentry would track our movement by keeping its face pointed at us, but never yelled for help, or pheromone signaled, or whatever wasps do. Benign. But still I worried about Elysia forgetting and stepping on the nest, paying in stings: that would be my fault.
There's been a paper nest pretty much every year, more than likely each the descendant of the last, and I'd managed to get along without killing any of them. One was in the branch of the young maple tree down in the yard, harmless position. One was in the very peak of the eaves on the tall side of the house. I knocked it down in winter, thing the size of my head. The wasps never bothered us. One year there were three nests, seemingly associated, lined along the front fence at shoulder height for a person operating a riding lawnmower, a person just like me, on a mower just like mine, which was new that year. I left a crescent of lawn un-mowed, waited to get stung - still in fear mode - tried to get myself to do something about the nests.
But before I could, a pair of phoebes apparently noticed them. By luck I was on the screen porch eating lunch, got to watch: the birds just perched on the fence, rhythmically pumping their tails, rhythmically leaping to pick off returning wasps, about an hour of good eating that seemed to thin out toward the end, when suddenly the birds went to the source, tore open the nests on repeated flights, picked off the few wasps that spilled out, fat queens as prizes in the end.
Same fate for a giant nest that grew one year in the sculpture in my back field. (My only sculpture ever, a big rusty thing I put together from objects I found in the old farm dump, the round bottom of a boiler balanced sideways on a cracked twenty-gallon iron kettle. But I digress.) The wasps started their nest in the center of the boiler bottom, a beautiful spot - certainly not in my way. Gradually it reached the size of a large honeydew melon (one of those flavorless, over-engineered grocery-store ones, pale and bruised, bred for travel, picked by exploited workers… but again, I digress), made it all the way to August intact. Then, one hot day, tatters. The phoebes had found the nest, or maybe knew it was there all along, had merely waited for peak population.
I thought I'd find advice for clearing wasp nests on the web. I typed in paper wasp nest and, zip, a photo of a nest appeared, gray paper to be sure, but just a single, exposed comb, an umbrella upside down, the things that hang from the eaves and the attic rafters by a single slim petiole, slim-waisted wasps on top feeding visible larvae. Familiar, but not at all what was under my deck. I kept adding words till a photo of my kind of nest popped up. White-faced hornets, it said. White-faced hornets? No way. Those things are big, like fighter jets, fearsome. "Extremely aggressive in defense of nest," the caption said. I got the binoculars out and looked some more: my wasps were not white-faced hornets as pictured, and certainly not paper wasps. They looked, in fact, more like fuzzy yellow jackets. But yellow jackets were exclusive ground-and-cavity nesters, no? Back to the web. Page after page from various college extension services, and finally, a quiet mention of aerial yellow jackets, Dolichovespula arenaria, a distinct species. The nest that came up was mine, all right, less lumpy than the hornet nests shown in earlier photos. The insects pictured were mine, too.
And oh-oh-they were also "Extremely aggressive in defense of the nest." Web facts: aerial wasps eat house flies, hunt them down. I'd just been saying to Elysia how few houseflies we'd had this year, like none at all. Dolichovespula arenaria is not the yellow jacket that visits picnics. They eat harmful insects, period, which makes them our friends. Friends to stay away from. The nest is formed from wood pulp well chewed and mixed with saliva. A single fertilized queen, having spent the winter in leaf litter or the wood pile, starts the project very small, hatches a first generations of workers, all female, and then as a team they just keep building, eating flies, primping the queen, and feeding new larvae, which emerge and emerge and emerge in quick generations till the nest holds 1000 individuals or more. Fertile males come at the end of summer, mate with the large females who will become next year's queens. Come frost, everyone else in the nest dies, old queens, workers, larvae. Nests aren't reused.
The number-one piece of advice about nest removal was not to do it, to leave the nests and colonies alone, wait till a hard frost. The number-two piece of advice involved spraying, one of those cans that shoots a paralyzing spray 25 feet. No fair, to my mind, and poison up and down the food chain (mites at one end, Phoebes at the other, ultimately ourselves… but I digress).
So I asked my friend Michelle Robinson. She keeps honeybees. She's brave, too, always direct. She grinned when I described my nest, a kind of excitement overtaking her: "We had one. Right where the kids were going to get in it. I just got mad and went out there and whacked it with a stick, whacked it to pieces and ran." She took scores of stings before they gave up on her: yellow jackets, unlike honey bees, are able to sting repeatedly. Whack it with a stick!
Not my style.
A very long, hard rain made me think of another possible method, which I called the Noah. In the Noah, you put the hose on a hard drool and just let it drain all night through the deck planks and onto the nest. Which, when you think about it, is really no more than a glorified blob of paper towel. Like in the Bounty commercial. But then in the morning, jeez, you'd have a papier-mache mess on the lawn, the aftermath of a rainy toilet-paper Halloween, and dead larvae, dead workers, very likely a dead queen, and that would mean a dead colony, and that would mean more houseflies, also bad karma. I'm kidding, but not kidding. Why kill for convenience? My first urgent wish to destroy the nest had abated. In fact, I felt protective of it. I'd watched them at work, all that industry, and even in close quarters they'd left me alone, aggressive as they were. More important, I'd lost my fear, even if only because of my own bad research methods, and it's harder to kill when unafraid.
One middle of the night I remembered another method, one I'd used on a much smaller and more accessible nest years before, early season. You wait till dark of night and just slip a paper grocery bag over the whole nest, pinch it closed, then slice the nest support with a putty knife or similar. The wasps (I still thought they were paper wasps then) are supposed to stay in the nest. I vividly recalled the buzz of the bag in my hand, how the colony had come alive in the night. Like some other people I know, I hadn't done much post-invasion planning. The crusty cottage caretaker I learned the method from (Adirondacks 1975), ended things with gasoline and a match, similar to spraying, chemically, but with the added danger of close contact and fire. I wasn't going to do that. Panicked, I carried the bag back into the woods and propped it in a tree, released the neck of it, ran like hell, though vespids aren't likely to fly far in the dark. Over the following few days the (not) wasps seemed to reorient, attaching the loose dwelling to the bag and the bag to the branches at hand and heading out as usual to work.
So one hot, moonless night a couple of weeks ago I went out with yet another Hannaford bag and a flashlight. I shined the light on the nest and there were maybe 300 wasps all around the large entrance hole (which is not at the tip of the nest but in a depression in the middle, looking like a grimacing mouth, and which wouldn't be covered till I'd got the job half done), 300 aerial yellow jackets buzzing away, clearly on air-conditioning duty. Bill's law: don't bag a nest unless the yellow jackets are inside. I gave up.
The nest grew.
Until one night in mid-September, when the temperature fell into the low forties. Sure enough, no insects on the outside of the nest-everyone had been called inside to keep the queen warm. I crept up with Hannaford bag gaping, Elysia's toy flashlight in my teeth, fitted the bag to task, but the nest had gotten too big. Did I mention whiskey? Whiskey is part of this story. I doggedly tried this angle, tried that angle, distinctly heard the insects stirring, and Jack Daniel's or no, dropped the bag and ran.
Well, so, dinner on the deck for sunset is overrated anyway, as is using the deck at all. Is the deck important enough to justify hundreds, even thousands of deaths? Can't we all just get along?
And if there has to be violence, couldn't it be those monstrous phoebes?
No-the nest it seemed, was too well hidden.
But a hard freeze did the job at the end of September, the nest already considerably quiet from repeated earlier frosts, left this queen's genes in the train of life. I'd seen the bigger males emerging, the even bigger potential queens. By now the girls are hunkered down in secret places. I'm leaving the nest in place for now, enjoy sitting at the deck table just on top of it, noticed the strong upsurge in the fly population. Couple of weeks? I'm going to cut the nest down, bring it into Elysia's school, cut it open for a lesson, tell the kids about aerial yellow-jackets, fuzzier, smaller, than the other kind, and not to be confused with white-faced hornets or gentler paper wasps.
Nice to know, too, that somewhere near, valiant queens are waiting, holding within them the key to all the nests to come to my neck of the woods forever.
<I>Bill Roorbach lives alongside Temple Stream, with the wasps, birds, deer and other creatures that inhabit western Maine. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org