Wasps. Goddamned wasps. And yellow jackets and hornets too. They are members of the families Vespidae and superfamily Apoidea and I hate them all, every one. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t hate them, and with good reason. They are yellow and black, the colors of danger and lethality — be warned! They have stingers with a most monumental poison and love to use them. You may not see them, the Vespidae, but you cannot mistake their menacing buzz; buzz unlike any other, a buzz that makes the blood run cold. See or hear one and you want to run as fast and as far as you can.
And they are everywhere except Antarctica.
They especially like to hang out around my place.
I’ve written about wasps before and I’m writing about them again.
My relationship with Vespidae and Apoidea began when I was between six to eight years old. One summer night, just after going to bed, I heard one buzzing around my room. Instinctively I was on alert with fear and dread. I called for my dad. He came in, switched on the light and, Christ, there it was, up in the corner on the other side of the room. Buzzing and bouncing off the wall. “It’s a yellow jacket,” said my dad. “Just stay there, Butch, and I’ll swat it.”
Dad came back in with a stool and rolled-up newspaper. Standing atop the stool, he took aim and *swat*, struck the damned thing. But did he kill it? Not a chance. He only stunned it. It came off the wall in an arc whose terminus was my face. I saw it but by the time I realized was coming for my face, it was too late. The bastard stung me three times before it fell off onto the floor, where Dad crushed it underfoot with his Size Fourteen, Trippe A’s .
Another encounter took place when I was thirteen and riding home on my bike. It was a hot day so I had my shirt open, flapping in the breeze. Then I saw something coming at me and before I could react, it went inside my shirt. It was a jet-black mud dauber wasp, which are uniquely repulsive. It got me four times before I could stop and rip off my shirt. As it flew languorously away, I clapped it between both hands. It fell to earth where I stomped it.
When we lived in the city, the wasp problem wasn’t too bad, but one time I saw they’d made a nest inside the glass shade of my porch light. The next day I bought an aerosol can of wasp killer. When the bastards had bedded down for the night, I switched off the lamp, stole up to the nest and emptied the can into it, then ran like hell.
Living out here in a semi-rural environment, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets are everywhere. To my dismay, they like to make nests in the eaves outside the door. They also made one under the patio table, from whence they stung the crap out of me when I tried to move it. They made one in the ground — in the freaking ground, for the Christ’s sake — which I accidentally hit with the string trimmer and, again, had the crap stung out of me. The stings hurt like blazes for three days then began to itch as well. I finally went to the doctor for relief.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about these bugs is they refuse to die. Let me relate several recent, blood-curdling examples.
Out on the deck last summer, I saw a number of them flying about the eaves. Following them, I saw they headed to the spots where the roof and eaves join up and in the crotches of these joints, there were four nests. Damn! I went to the hardware store and bought several more cans of wasp killer and when they were down for the night, unloaded. The horrid creatures dropped from their nests like rocks and lay dead on the deck. “Well,” I said to myself, “I’ll let the bug spray evaporate over night then sweep them away”. The next morning, broom in hand, I bent to my delightful task only to see one of the things moving about. It had not died. It rolled over onto its belly and began to flex its wings. Stomp, went the old foot and that was that. But how could it have survived enough poison to kill a small dog? What were these things anyway, the Devil’s spawn?
Toward the end of summer, Jo came in telling of a large wasps’ nest the size of a basketball. I saw it. It probably held at least a thousand monsters, plus their grubs, of course. It was hanging from a Rhododendron limb, low to the ground. How long it had been there I have no idea. It had a little hole at the bottom from which clouds of bugs came and went. I almost wept.
Well, I hosed down the nest with more cans of hornet spray but it did no good. I tried again the following night; nothing. I was about to tear out my hair when a neighbor told me that if I broke up the nest, they’d quietly leave. Oh, sure. Being desperate, I took his advice the following night and smote the nest with a 20-foot window washing pole. A hole appeared in the side from which hundreds of wasps emerged, all in righteous buzzing wrath. I ran, not stopping for half a block. The next night, I smacked the nest again, this time breaking it in half. Sure enough, they left. A couple nights later, I stole over to the ruined nest and stuffed it into a garbage bag. To ensure the death of the grubs, I left lay in the sun for a few days. Then I put the bag in the trash.
Our place has a large and very efficient wood stove. In the cold months, it is our primary source of heat (nothing is as homey as a nice fire crackling away as you sit and stare into the flames). Anyway, we have a suitable pile of wood and as the summer passes into fall, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets creep into the pile and go to sleep. If we do not inspect every piece of wood, we can (and do) bring them into the house. Of course they’re torpid from the cold, so they simply drop off and I crush them. But like I said, these creatures do not easily die. Ten minutes after giving them a good stomping, they often revive. I then stomp them again, rolling my foot over them so as to break them into pieces. Then I’m sure they’re dead.
One afternoon, my buddy, Dale, had stopped by for coffee, we took our cups and sat by the blazing wood stove. As I picked up a piece of wood to refresh the fire, sure enough, a wasp dropped off. “Jesus Christ” I spat as I stomped the bug. It was dead. Not a twitch could be seen. Then I turned to Dale and said, “Keep an eye on that thing. There is a good chance it’ll come back to life”. Dale smiled and nodded.
Ten minutes later I told Dale, “Look”. Sure enough, it was moving. Dale sat bolt upright, regarded it for a few seconds, then looked over at me. “What did I tell you”, I replied as I got up and stomped it again and again until it was quiescent. I swept the remains into the fireplace shovel and tossed them in the stove.
Then, three weeks ago, Jo and I built a nice hot fire and kept it going all the frigid day. This wood stove of ours has a damper that’s nothing but a snout feeding air directly into the coals. This damper is a slide valve; push it in and you get less air, pull it out and you get more. When the fire is out, we always close the damper to prevent cold air coming in through the chimney.
Well, a week or so later, I went to build another fire. I opened the damper and then the door and laid a fire-starter in front of the snout when I saw something coming up through the ashes right in front of me. It was a goddamned wasp! Yes, you read that correctly, a wasp! Like a frigging Phoenix with its demonic and preternatural powers, the wasp was rising from a heap of ashes. Rising from the ASHES!
Gad, how could such a thing be possible? The wasp couldn’t have gotten in through the closed damper. Maybe could have come down the chimney, but it would have had to negotiate a bunch of baffles to get in the fire box. If the wasp got in by hanging onto a piece of wood, surely the fire would have killed it. In any case, I tossed match after match onto the wasp until it seemed subdued, then hurriedly built the fire and closed the door.
But just as spooky: Why did it burrow into the ashes, then lay in wait for me to open the door?
I wish I could answer these questions, but I cannot.
And I’m vigilant, ever vigilant.