There were wasps. Lots and lots of wasps, and they were just a few feet from the back door. This kind of thing is troubling, and it happened here over the weekend.
Before we get into it, a little background. My history with stinging insects is colorful.
One summer when I was about 10, for instance, I learned that knocking down a huge paper wasp nest from under the eaves of the house does not solve the problem.
A summer or two before or after that memorable lesson, my father and I were re-roofing the house, with the ladder against the two-story part. It was hot, unpleasant work, a few hours each day beginning mid=afternoon when my dad got home from the newspaper.
We were finishing up one evening and getting ready to head inside for supper. I was already on the ground. My dad was a few steps down the ladder when he noticed the wasps. That came a second or two after the wasps noticed him. The ladder, on which we’d been going up and down for hours, was just above a medium-sized paper-wasp nest. For some reason, the wasps had only now decided to express an interest.
My dad came down the ladder faster than is customary, at some point becoming almost upside down. He landed on his shoulder, which never entirely healed. We counted 18 stings, but there may have been others; my family believed in personal privacy.
So my opinion of wasps, especially paper wasps, has not been favorable.
I went several decades without any further dramatic wasp encounters. Then I moved to Ohio. While other regions of the country and the world may have surpassed us in some industries, we are second to no one I know of when it comes to wasp production. They are here in both number and variety.
On July 29, 2008 I got reacquainted with waspers, as my dad called them when addressing them directly. I got stung twice in separate incidents that day. The first came when I was cleaning the gutters of the barn, which apparently contained a nest of little ground-dwelling wasps, one of which sought and got my attention. (I was lucky – Athens NEWSEditor Terry Smith mowed over a nest of yellowjacket wasps a few years later and got multifariously perforated. He was not at his best for several days.)
A few hours later, while I was dealing with a paper-wasp nest inside the reel that stores my garden hose, one of its residents flew 20 feet veryquickly and nailed me. It turns out that wasps do not generally land on you, take things into consideration, and decide to sting. They can get you while they’re flying. It takes few skills to be a wasp, but the ones they have they have mastered.
(It was the same morning a fellow placed fake bombs at Athens County post offices. Strange day.)
Wasps and I have succeeded at giving each other wide berth, mostly, since then. The exceptions were two very small wasps, a little over a half-inch long, that on different days thought that the armrests of my couch and desk chair respectively would be good places to hang out. I twice ended up with stung elbows while they ended up crushed. Elbows work both ways.
Then came last weekend. I stepped onto the back porch to take some garbage to the compost pile and I noticed them. There were hundreds of wasps gathered in an inside underside corner of the back porch, near the roof. They weren’t being especially lively, but with wasps it just takes one: when they sting they give off a pheromone that invites everyone else to the party.
I was concerned.
I’d also never seen anything like it.
Putting a longish lens on the camera, I made a couple of pictures and thus was able to appraise the situation from a distance. The pictures made it seem even weirder, because it looked as if there were two species involved: a few normal paper wasps plus a lot of wasps with whitish faces, resembling (but the wrong size and shape) bald-faced hornets. (They also facially resembled tiny imperial storm troopers.) What was I to make of this? More important, what was I to do about it?
One thing that came to mind was the mowing that had been done nearby in the last couple of weeks. County mowers don’t just cut the grass and weeds; they lift up and reach into the trees. I wondered at first if perhaps this ambitious work had disrupted a big nest (maybe even a hornet nest – I lay no claim to expertise in vespid taxonomy), and now they were looking for both a place to stay and revenge.
With some research I learned that my back porch may have become the arthropod equivalent of Court Street on Friday night minus the beer. The white-faced wasps were male and they were looking for sex. Female northern paper wasps don’t have the bright facial markings, thus what I mistook for a different species.
Nature treats male wasps the way television commercials treat male humans: kind of idiotic and lost while the females of the species do all the thinking and all the important work.
They do not even have stingers (or so it is said; if you want to do the experiment, let me know how it worked out). They’re useless except for their one biological imperative.
In the case of some species, the males get together and hang out, emitting the wasp equivalent of catcalls and adopting suggestive poses. The females shop among them. They have their own way of discouraging the ones who, I don’t know, didn’t make the football team. “Females on tiptoe with splayed wings are saying ‘Back off!’” says "Bees and Wasps of Ohio,"a fascinating publication of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. It works well enough that the species continues.
In the meantime, I equipped myself with a range of de-waspifying products. (Yeah, I know that wasps have as much right to be here as we do. So does the ebola virus. I know that wasps are beneficial. I don’t care. They can go be beneficial someplace other than my back porch.)
But apparently all that will be unnecessary. After mating, the females will go off and find a good place to winter (though this year they seem to be planning well ahead).
The males, after they’ve done their procreative duty, drop dead.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.