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Monday, June 13, 2016

A Bother of Wasps...

KATHERINE: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO: My remedy then is to pull it out.

KATHERINE: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting.
                        In his tail.

        Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew

The collective noun for wasps is "pladge" as in a "pladge" of wasps. That may be but considering the waspish invasion that's descended upon our property, I much prefer the collective a "bother"of wasps. On any given warm spring day they are everywhere, drifting along on the breeze, legs dangling like tails of a kite. A fog of them cascades from the shake roof. I find their nests in the strangest places: an empty flower pot, inside my little greenhouse cloche, under a piece of scrap lumber. Just the other day I removed three small nests from inside the chicken coop. Nests hang from the soffits, the carport, the eaves of the shed.
The woodshed is a favorite nesting place for them. Before I remove a stick of firewood from the stack, I inspect the underside of the roof for their telltale gray cones. Many's the time I've gingerly removed a stick from beneath a nest bristling with the bothersome things, each posturing for assault. Their numbers seem to grow each year, their nests more plentiful, the airspace filled with more and more. Our swallow nest box has remained vacant for two or three years because, I'm fairly certain, they tired of the wasps' incessant pestering to gain access. For years a pair of violet-green swallows nested in our roof gable, but the hordes of wasps living under the cedar shakes proved too much competition for them. If the day's a warm one and I leave the truck windows down for ventilation, I'm certain to have a couple of wasps riding shotgun with me when I run my next errand.

In the two story ranch house, my home as a boy, every fall wasps would build nests in the attic above the knotty pine plank that covered the ceiling pitch of my bedroom. In the warm autumn afternoons they would ooze from the hot attic and cluster around the light fixture in clumps of forty or fifty. I learned from experience that at anytime one was likely to drop on me or an unsuspecting visitor and sting upon impact. At bedtime you'd be well advised to inspect the bed clothes before you slipped under them.

It became my ritual those Indian Summer afternoons of clumping wasps to sanitize my sleeping space. Home from school I'd rush upstairs to assess the day's battleground and find a clump or two clinging from the ceiling. Next out came the folding card table which I'd set up to one side beneath the enemy. Laying a fly swatter close by, I'd prepare the necessary ordnance for the assault: projectiles fashioned from newspaper, each with a fold in the middle so I could get a firm purchase with thumb and forefinger. I knew an all out attack would be a mistake: swatting a clump of fifty or sixty wasps was likely to cause painful retribution. (Unlike honeybees that are armed only with a single shot because of their barbed sting, a wasp is--or can be, should it wish--a repeat offender and do a stinging dance up and down a bare arm. Snicker snak....) Strategy was to even the odds: take out a number of the enemy, trim their numbers, until one or two swats could dispatch the remainder.

I began the offensive by slipping a stout rubber band over my fore and middle fingers, hooking a paper missile between the strands, and taking careful aim at the nest, let fly, and dash under the card table when a direct hit would tumble six or eight to the floor where they lay momentarily stunned. I'd rush out and whale away with the swatter, make short work of them. The battle would continue until only a half dozen remained. First making sure my shirtsleeves were rolled to the wrist, the rest I'd take on mano e mano. The wasp wars lasted until the October frosts dispatched my ceiling foes.

These pesky fellows are paper or "umbrella" wasps, genus polistes, a commonplace North American wasp: "umbrella" because of their nests of open faced hexagonal cells (unlike the archetypal football-shaped nest of their hornet cousins), housing for developing larvae. Wasps attach the nests with a thread-like pillar or "petiole" around the base of which they secrete an ant repellent.

If you're a reader of The Ripple, you know I'm hypersensitive concerning the subject of bees and quickly come to their defense whenever someone confuses any bug that flies in his face or buzzes in his ear as a "bee." Most likely the culprit is a wasp or hornet--and of those two, I'm putting my money on the latter. Not only do wasps and hornets differ in appearance, so do their flight patterns.
Wasps are drifters in flight. Long legs trailing behind, they laze through the air seemingly without purpose. Hornets bullet along as if they were high on amphetamines, darting here and there like insect hummingbirds. If an obnoxious, supercharged bug tries to appropriate your piece of barbecued chicken at the picnic table,
you can bet the party crasher is not a bee but a hungry hornet.

Although bothersome, I admit, wasps serve the gardener by pollinating his crops, berries in particular. These little paper sculptors are seldom aggressive and if you're uncomfortable with their presence, instead of dosing their nests with a noxious chemical, encourage them elsewhere by removing their nests with a swift swish of a broom. A word to the wise: just don't surprise a nest of them as Kelly Bolles did the other day. I stopped to chat with Kelly and he showed me his swollen right hand, puffed up by protective wasps when he accidentally laid hands on their hidden nest while cleaning his gutters.
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  1. I found what appeared to be a hornet nest in my greenhouse a few weeks ago. I never did see anything come in or out of it but decided it best to wack it down the other day just in case. It's now laying on the floor of my greenhouse behind the sink. I haven't inspected it for any activity after swatting it down. I suppose I should remove it.

    1. I knocked down three wasp nests in the coop the other day. That makes a half dozen so far. Wasps must have been out and about...which was fine with me. Thanks for reading. TMJ