Wasp Wisdom

My patient wasp family on the end of their stick, after completing woodshed reconstruction.

One way to measure the change I’ve undergone in the last several years is via wasps. That’s right: wasps.

It’s as if I woke up one morning realizing that I grew up in a society of human supremacists, that I was one too, and that I no longer want to live that way.

In 2022, I began heating my home by burning firewood—mostly from scavenged trees in my forested area that have blown down. I needed a shelter for drying the wood and hastily constructed a structure mostly out of spare materials on hand. This summer, I decided to gussy it up to last a while. As I began unloading wood from it so I could rebuild it from the ground-up, I found a small nest of paper wasps attached to a stick on top of the pile, just under the roof. It was a smart location for the wasps.

In the past, I would have eliminated the nest, as it interfered with my plans. My biggest concern would have been how to wage war on the wasps without any risk to myself. Growing up, I feared wasps. I suppose I imagined they were after me—which I see now as a form of projection. Mentally, I was at war with wasps, so naturally these enemies would also be at war with me. If they weren’t so dumb, they would ambush me as a preventive offensive.  It is somewhat telling that when I searched on the internet to identify the wasps, a shocking fraction of the search results pointed to sites geared toward exterminating these “pests.”

Now that I am trying to operate as a humble member of the community of life, and to think of wasps as sisters who have been around for a long time and can probably teach me a thing or two, I find that my initial reaction is not one of fear, but of admiration.

The wasps did nothing wrong in choosing their spot. It was a solid choice. My desire to rebuild the shed was outside the parameters of normalcy. So I decided to work around them.

I knew from my accidental year of keeping bees during the pandemic (a feral swarm that I housed and tended) that wasps were likely highly attuned to their location. I could not move the nest very far or they would not be able to find it upon return and their mission would fail. Small, incremental moves are okay.

I gingerly picked up the stick to which they were attached and wedged it just under the roof material so that I could empty the stacked wood. The wasps became a little jittery as I inevitably jostled the stick a few times. But they never left their nest. I went about unloading wood, never bothered by the wasps. I watched as some wasps returned to the nest area, and saw in their actions the confusion caused by even the 30 centimeter move. “It’s supposed to be right here.” They were correct. A few minutes of ever-expanding exploratory circles and they found the nest again.

But my solution was temporary. I needed to remove the roof material, tip over the whole shed frame, set up a good, level foundation, and build back better. How to do all this without disrupting their lives? They seemed to need a sheltering roof (sun? rain? I know far less than they do about what’s important). Large moves would not work.

I found a long slab of wood and bark from a remnant of western red cedar I had milled into lumber. I could place the 3-meter slab on some hardy bushes nearby so that it would protrude into the shed from the back—roughly in the right location. I set it up in this way and tied their stick underneath it. They tolerated the move extraordinarily well. I positioned it as close to their previous position as gravity and bush geometry would allow and left it for a day.

In the following days, I edged the slab back into the bushes a little bit (30 cm) at a time until it was well clear of the shed. The slab offered shelter from above, though not as complete in terms of sun (morning and evening exposure). I watched them fanning the nest with their wings one warm afternoon, keeping the developing eggs/larvae from overheating in the direct sun. They have their tricks. They know what they’re about.

I commenced work on the shed, often brushing quite close to the nest. They never stirred. I guess they’re not at war after all. When I had the structure back in place and a roof overhead, I edged the slab back under the roof day by day until they were near their original position, now well sheltered. The end of the slab was pushed on top of a roof support member to get the nest up high and provide room for me to continue working.

I nailed planks onto the back wall of the shed, each bang sending a shudder through the structure that reached the wasps, albeit somewhat damped by the indirect route to their stick through the strings by which it hung. Nonetheless, I watched them jiggle, and tolerate the whole affair. It was worst when I hammered near them, but even then, nothing more than minor agitation was apparent. I found myself talking to them, apologizing for my disturbances and sometimes just saying hello.

Before nailing the final boards, I needed to eliminate the slab. So I tied the stick to the roof support, and loaded up the shed with wood. The job was done, and they survived the whole affair with grace. They had excellent shelter, and a new friend. They’re good girls.

Second Wasp Story

Besides paper wasps who build nests in rafters and birdhouses, we also have a patch of ground wasps in my yard. I have found them also to be quite docile: accommodating occasional weed control around their homes (manual glof-club-like swinging tool). I’ve definitely taken liberties around them, but never have they been moved to war.

I was walking with my visiting sister around my neighborhood, and came across a large area of these ground wasps, doing their busy buzzy thing. I noticed a neighbor I knew in his back yard adjacent to this patch (which itself was in no ones’ yard). I said hi, pointed out the field of wasps, and noted how tame and gentle this variety seems to be. His response: “I kill ’em. I spray poison in their holes. They don’t stand a chance!”

A few years ago, I likely would have nodded and asked what he used: gotta get me some of that! But I found myself appalled. On who’s authority, I wondered? What harm are they doing you?

So there we have two stories involving different species of wasps that illustrate for me the changes I have undergone in how I relate to other life on this planet.

Now to the Bees

On a related note, I’m not sure how I would feel about keeping bees again. Why do they need me? Sure, I very much enjoyed my year with bees: getting over fear, observing them closely, learning their ways, seeing them swarm, predicting their departure direction based on the dances I watched the scouts perform, walking among the swarm as they moved down my street to a new location, getting some honey. I learned so much from the obviously intelligent bee colony, and came to appreciate the intricacies of nature all the more. But I was basically a greedy landlord. I’ll give you shelter if you let me rob your hard-earned honey. Except for the fact that they were not caged or fenced—free to move out—it was not far from inter-species slavery. As their human supremacist “owner,” they worked for me.

It’s a fuzzy, buzzy line. If a bear finds a hive in the wild and can tolerate hundreds of stings to get some honey and larvae through a difficult opening (like trying to weasel something out of a vending machine slot), then that’s fair play. But for a species to engineer frames that can be easily accessed and lifted out, wearing a suit to prevent stings, and employing smoke to send the bees into a panic response rather than the usual defensive readiness…well, that just seems like cheating.

I might as well add this anecdote. Having kept bees, I learned to recognize the smell of their hive. It’s a heady mix of honey, pollen, and earthy mustiness. One day I was walking through a San Diego canyon with a visiting friend from grad school, and I suddenly said “stop!” I smelled bees! I looked around for bees and saw a few flying in the same direction. I followed them, and about 15 or 20 meters off the trial, I saw bees funneling into a hole in a tree trunk at about eye level. I’m a frikin’ bear! I can find bees in the wild with my nose! My friend wasn’t as impressed as I thought she should have been, but I still get a kick out of it.

Closing

These experiences help me understand the Indigenous saying that plants and animals are our older brothers and sisters who can teach us much about how to live on this planet. My wasp sisters definitely taught me a lot. Who would have thought I could learn so much from insects? Daniel Quinn frames modernity as being at war with nature. I guess that’s how I felt for much of my life. I mean, I enjoyed nature. I liked to be out in it. But I now find myself less worried that nature is out to get me. That attitude came from my own sense of “man against nature,” and it’s very pleasant to have since shed it. Yes, it’s conceivable that I could be eaten by a bear someday, but that’s not unfair. Good on the bear!

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