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Friday, October 19, 2012

Don’t Garden in Your Short Pants…

hornets ready to launch“…and books that told me everything about wasps, except why.”

Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

A warm afternoon in the garden. These days won’t last much longer, I think, as I bask for a moment in the sunshine. My brief reverie is interrupted when I notice a buzz of activity in the dahlia patch. Insects are jetting skyward as if they’re shot out of the ground, their launch area the base of a favorite dahlia, a nice blossom, a blend of yellow and white pastels. I saunter over to investigate and discover ground hornets exploding from a nest next to the dahlia stalk. Their launch pattern reminds me of those rocket pods on navy warships that fire one missile after another until nothing is left but smoke. They rise from the ground and dart off business-like to visit their villainy on whatever they can.

The nest has been there how long, I wonder? Unaware that Mother Nature has planted a hornet minefield in the patch, have I unsuspectingly plucked a few blossoms from that particular dahlia while straddling that venomous hole in the ground? If that’s the case, then I’ve averted disaster. If my private space had violated their airspace, I could have been in for some excitement. My short pants would have been a box canyon for those adrenalin-powered missiles; they’d have had to sting their way to freedom. As that hypothetical scenario played out in my head, I was reminded of a Mark Twain remark about a distant uncle who while attending a Fourth of July celebration had the misfortune to open his mouth at the same time a sky rocket flew his way. In Twain’s inimitable understatement, the humorist remarked: “A man couldn’t have an experience like that and remain entirely cheerful about it.” Nor could a man whose short pants were full of angry hornets. We marked the dahlia, tied a conspicuous blue ribbon to the stake, a reminder for us to tread carefully in the hornet zone.

ground to air missiles

Ground hornets. Bane of the deep woods lumberjack, backwoods hiker, picnicker. Carnivores.  Cannibals. The striped pest that insinuates itself  at your picnic table, dive bombs your plate of fried chicken or barnstorms the barbecued rib you can’t bite into because you’re too busy waving it in the air to shoo off the uninvited guest. This is not the first nest I’ve encountered on the place. One evening years ago I was mowing out back. The sun was low in the west and on a return pass, I noticed a mirage of insect wings glinting in the sun. I had mowed over a ground hornets’ nest! The lawnmower sped along in fifth gear whenever I mowed that strip, and I continued to speed mow that patch of ground until the mower was retired for the season.

This time of year hornets are everywhere, into everything, the pests of the season. sipping sweetnessThe first few weeks of fall the honeybees trim their hives of the excess drones; these ever hungry loafers could take their toll of the winter stores if their population was too great. Evicted by the workers, out they go, never to be allowed back in. These homeless drones are not long for the world; no sooner are they booted out than a hornet zooms in to pick them off and pack its prize  home to the dinner table. And if it can, a hornet will invade the beehive itself. Hornets will destroy a weak colony, especially one whose hive has points of ingress other than the entrance—too many openings for a small population to defend.  Hornets attacked my bee yard in Winthrop one fall and were picking off the hives one by one. I lost two colonies to the voracious little carnivores: all the honey, larvae, and bees themselves gone. The hives were licked clean, light as thistledown when I loaded them on the truck. I pulled one of the bottom boards and found an inch or so of dead insects, a goulash of hornet and honeybee carcasses. The bees had fiercely defended their home  but succumbed to sheer numbers and aggressiveness. When a hornet would alight on a hive lid, I’d smash it with my gloved hand. As soon as I’d lift my fist, there would be two or three of its fellows vying for their deceased relative. To a hornet, meat is meat regardless if the flesh is that of your own species. Carnivore and cannibal, that’s the hornet for you.

One of beekeeping’s  fall maintenance duties here in the Valley involves hornet prevention, and to this end I install entrance reducers on each hive, thus limiting the hornets’ means of access while giving the bees a greater chance to defend themselves from invasion. Even then an especially bold hornet will enter the reduced entrance, disappear inside, and back out almost instantly with three or four guard bees in its face.hornet intruders

Even this safeguard doesn’t provide one hundred percent prevention. Hornets fly in colder weather than honeybees and on a cool, rainy fall day it is usual to see several buzzing about a hive’s entrance. Honeybees cluster for warmth on cold days and hornets take advantage of the bees’ semi hibernation, enter the hive with little resistance and help themselves to the unprotected winter stores.

While I don’t want to invite trouble by flaunting my short pants in their airspace, I have to say I’ve yet to be stung by a hornet here on the place in all the years we’ve lived here. My wife can’t make such a claim. When we were preparing our yard for a lawn years ago, she was unaware that a hornet had settled on her underarm. When she dropped her arm, the hornet took offense at being pinched and raised both a welt on her side and a howl of pain from the victim. Hornets always invade my honey shed during the annual honey extraction. One at a time somehow they filter in and immediately hover around the nearest honey drip. Periodically I’d vacuum them up with an old vacuum cleaner I kept handy for that purpose. While they were batting their heads against the fluorescent lights, I’d suck them one by one from the glowing  tubes. Every hour or so I’d have to fire up the vacuum again and “sanitize” the surroundings…but not once did I receive a single sting.Watch your step

I showed our resident hornets’ nest to my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L.  As far as hornets (and squirrels and jays and moles and voles…) are concerned Nancy L. is environmentally insensitive. “Why don’t you pour a pot of boiling water down that hole?” she asked indignantly. Sure, Nancy L., that’s one environmentally-conscious way to eradicate a nest of hornets: no arsenic, no toxic pesticides, hornet bombs, RAID, or other pollutants…no argument there. But then there’s boiling the water, carrying the pot to the nest in the dark (yes, they all have to be home snug in the nest…and what if the water cools in transit?). No, Nancy L,  Mother Nature will take care of those striped varmints. The fall rains will drown them out. They always have. In fact it’s raining now. It’s really pouring down out there….

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