(Warning! Scary pictures not appropriate for entomophobics)
My husband and I think of ourselves as fairly knowledgeable organic gardeners. When considering a topic for this blog, I thought I would write about bugs. However when I browsed through our small library of gardening books, I found a gap. We don’t have even one good book about bugs.
I suspect everyone knows about ladybugs, praying mantis, lacewings and nematodes. And adorable little pollinators.
But I want to write about another group, maybe not so popular with people in general.
Wasps. Spiders. Dragonflies.
Let’s talk about wasps. This is a huge family of insects, my Field Guide to Insects and Spiders in North America tells me. (At least we have this one book). I mean there’s a lot. They belong to the order Hymenoptera (nice name for a character in a fantasy novel, I think—the Wasp Queen). Their relations are ants and bees. The book describes hymentopteran anatomy in great detail, and I won’t do that here, but at one point the book says that, outside of termites who are not in the family, hymenopterans are the “only truly social insects”.
Maybe that’s why my husband and I like them.
From childhood I was taught to not be afraid of “bees”, a name people use for any buzzing, flying insect that looks rather gold or yellow and is not a fly. The credo was, “don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.” Anyone who has been stung by a yellow jacket or a bald-faced hornet, as I have, learns a healthy respect for their personal space.
I learned this one day in our back garden, a chunk of flat land behind our house just south of Seattle, bordering the Duwamish River. We’d planted a small orchard of mostly quince, comice pear, apricots and medlars. One lovely summer day I was in the orchard battling one of our enemy plants—bindweed—when I felt a sharp burn on my wrist above my garden glove. I froze, then saw, hovering roughly 12 inches from my face, floating back and forth, a buzzing flying insect. Then, in the gloom of the quince tree, glued to branches and leaves, the biggest wasp next I had ever seen. The size of a basketball.
I obeyed the warnings and left immediately.
No one chased me. It was enough that I had left the vicinity.
The Internet told me these were bald-faced hornets, who are not really hornets and related to yellow jackets. It made me ask what is the difference between a wasp and a hornet? If a yellow jacket is a wasp, then who is a hornet? The New Oxford American Dictionary was not helpful, showing an example of a bald-faced hornet in the definition of hornet. It also told me that a wasp is a social stinging insect.
Back to the Internet.
As you might think, there’s a lot of information on the Internet. YouTube provided a clue: hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets. Hornets are the biggest guys, and this group includes, depending on which expert you listen to, yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets. Their sting is the worst too.
(Caution. Scary picture follows)
And I learned even more, shortly after my encounter with the bald-faced scout. We’d heard from other organic gardening friends that there was this guy who would come to your home and capture the hornets to sell to serum-makers, suppliers of antidotes to insect stings in people with extreme hypersensitivity to wasp stings. I don’t mean these are people super nervous around wasps—a lot of people are—but some people have overwhelming histamine releases to an insect sting, enough to jeopardize their lives.
I finally got him on the phone, and he proceeded to talk me out of destroying the nest.
“Just think what an abundance of insect life you have in your garden, enough to support a giant colony like that. You don’t use pesticides. Everyone benefits!”
He also said he had all the bald-faced hornet venom he needed that year.
So we stayed out of the orchard that summer. As the venom-guy had predicted, the hornets disappeared when cold weather came. As did the yellow jackets living in the ground near our house in one of our driveways (the one we rarely use, fortunately).
I respect the credo of live and let live. The hornets probably came back for a while, always building their mega paper nest in a different location. What saddens me now is that, in the years since that bald-faced scout warned me away, I think the hornets are gone. Seattle is under extreme-growth pressure, and our once rural-ish neighborhood on the Duwamish is slowly disappearing under concrete and massive homes.
And people who spray.
I say, all you hornets and wasps—come on over. The orchard is still here. The quince still grow and we even have peaches now. And we don’t spray. At least, that’s something.