BY LAURENT D’ENTREMONT
Last August while I was parking my old farm trailer in the tall grass next to our vegetable garden, I was surprised by a swarm of yellowjacket wasps that buzzed around my ears - but, luckily, did not attack. It was only after they settled down I was able to unhook the wagon from the tractor - very carefully, of course. I then noticed the gray paper nest on the ground, about the size of a basketball, with the entrance at the bottom. The wheels missed it by mere inches.
This was not my first encounter with wasps and hornets. Turn back the clock many years, and, as a small boy, I was walking in the bushes behind my grandfather’s barn, the same land my brother, Remi, and I farm today. There, I came face to face with a hornet’s nest. Before I could get away, four hornets painfully stung me on the forehead and it took a few days for the swelling to go down. It was there I learned to respect hornets and wasps.
A few years later, I noticed a hornets’ paper nest on one rafter of our pig pen. In those days, we kept a pig on our family farm. This nest was about the size of a grapefruit and looked innocent enough: I could see hornets flying in and out of it, and, remembering the earlier incident, kept my distance. My father decided he would soak a rag in oil, tie it to a long pole and burn it at night. The long pole treatment sounded good to me and, in broad daylight, flirting with danger, I nudged the nest a bit to see what would happen. It fell to the ground and the pig ate it on the spot, hornets and all.
Fast forward to the mid-1990’s and I’m leading a group of interested people on a museum field trip to a spot where our villagers had dug for gold in 1885 (without getting rich). We were walking on a less traveled path in the woods when I heard some yelling and saw people running for their lifes. Yellowjackets were on the attack and, as I was wearing tall rubber boots and first on the path, I was spared the agony of wasps’ painful stings. The following winter, I went alone and investigated the path and found the wasp nest just under the sod: we had stepped right on it.
Meanwhile back on the range - or, rather back to my vegetable garden - summer wore on, the wasps were minding their own business under my old farm wagon and I did not give them any reason not to! I have a hunch these wasps had been pollinating my scarlet runner beans and broad beans all summer. I could easily have burned them out at night, but I did not have the heart to do that.
Observing the wasp’s nest became sort of a daily routine; it got so I could stand about three feet from the nest and the wasps would just fly in and out and totally ignore me. I was no longer a threat to them - yet, best to keep one’s distance. They were a busy bunch.
When the grass started dying and turning yellow, the nest became that much more visible. My old wagon gave it protection from the rain and wind. As September turned into October, I learned wasps mind the cold weather; no longer would I see them leaving the nest. To get any action, I had to tap the paper nest gently with a bean pole. A few wasps would fly out to investigate, but return inside very quickly, the fighting spirit, earlier displayed, completely gone.
By fall, there was no sign of life. Carefully, I took the nest apart to investigate: only two insects were inside. Neither was the queen. They were too weak to fly and just fell to the ground. Only the queen, who had left the nest earlier to hide, will survive over winter to reproduce.
On the life of hornets and wasps, I know very little - but I know this: always treat them with respect and honor their existence.