I wish I could write haiku because this would have been perfect. But it’s a story instead.
A couple of nights ago we were eating dinner outside on the deck–it’s a pure pleasure to sit outdoors in the early summer evenings, after these beastly hot days. It’s just starting to get cool again, the sky still bright yet dimming at the same time, the color fading to a color between pink and blue and yellow and brown and gray you can just call ‘pale.’ After a hot day, it feels like a reunion with the breeze and green of gardens and trees. So soothing! And there’s always the edge of knowing that it will be winter soon, we won’t be able to sit out here.
Isn’t the evening called ‘the gloaming’? So there we were sitting out in the gloaming, eating some salad or other, when (hear the scary music) one of us noticed a small work-in-progress hanging from a lamp about a foot away, just behind one of our heads. It was a paper wasps’ nest being actively built by about a dozen yellow and black insects. They were quite busy and absorbed in what they were doing, kind of crawling over the surface of their new abode and working their little jaws, apparently spitting out the saliva-cum-wood pulp mixture that hardens into the papery walls of the nest.
We admired the geometry of their dwelling, the cells like a beehive’s. The whole thing was about the size of a tuna–i.e., a cactus fruit. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything more common… maybe an apricot? Too big.) These housebuilding wasps weren’t bothering us in the least, and yet the more we paid attention to them the more they seemed to notice us. Whether they saw or felt us, they slowed down their activity more and more until they eventually went quite still. Just sitting there clinging to their nest. In retrospect, given wasps’ reputation, I’m fascinated that their response wasn’t to attack us. When we stopped peering at them quite so closely and talking about them and to them (we did say “Hi there,” and some other stuff) and started eating again, they too started in again, working where they left off.
A wasps’ nest being built on the deck.
But they hadn’t been aggressive.
How big would the nest get, I wondered. A couple of years ago we had a big wasps’ nest above the front door, about the size of an American football. Amazing that we hadn’t seen it before it got to such an impressive size. It had a steady stream of wasps coming in and out of it. I procrastinated doing anything–again, they weren’t attacking us or anything–until finally in January I knocked it down with a broom and took it to a vacant lot. I felt very lucky, not to get stung. The wasps had stopped flying in and out which is why I felt safe enough to do it, but I assumed they were hibernating. If someone started bashing at your house with a broomstick, and you were a wasp, what would you do? Honestly…
I went online to figure out what to do about the new small nest. I imagined blowing cigar smoke into the outdoor lamp fixture, putting all the wasps into a stupor and then taking it somewhere–putting it amongst thick tree branches. It’s still warm out, I reasoned, the nest isn’t too huge, they’ll have time to build another one.
I checked Google, the source of all knowledge, and saw a photo of the largest wasps’ nest on record, which filled my mind with dread. It was bigger than a person. Several websites suggested that if a site was too close to where you were living, and if the wasps were a problem, you could spray the nest with insecticide especially designed to kill wasps. Oh… no. I didn’t want to add insecticide to my life, nor the atmosphere if I could help it. And I didn’t want to kill the wasps either. They were so intriguing and really gentle. The sites taught me a little more about their lives. I was happy to hear wasps called ‘beneficial insects.’ I learned that they’ve been scraping tiny amounts of wood from the sides of the house and probably our grapevine trellis, and then using that to build their nest. Hey!
And in January, they’ll all die.
That was a little sad. Maybe it explained why the other wasps hadn’t stung me. I resolved to leave the nest in place through the fall and take it away in the winter. Much easier.
The next day was Friday and a hurricane was predicted for Massachusetts. Governor Patrick declared a disaster and I spotted a neighbor going into his house with a big new drinking water jug for the emergency. I trimmed the tree in the driveway just in case. Well, the big winds never quite arrived but Friday was an eerie day of humid stillness, where the clouds crawled just above the house tops.
I went out to visit the wasps, wondering what they felt or thought of the day’s rich atmosphere, and they had definitely noticed it. They were all there, quietly hugging their nest.
Another enemy vaporized!