Vespicide

A newly discovered yellow jacket nest under my porch must be destroyed. The decision has been made before anyone has even laid eyes on it; removing the lattice-work to take a look would be hazardous. Dozens of hornets come zipping out at the slightest vibration — a heavy tread above their heads, for example — so we figure it must be big. It seems to be right over the door to the furnace, so there’s no question it has to go, and the sooner the better, before it grows enormous. I resolve to do it tonight, after dark.

The prospect of killing an entire colony isn’t something I relish, though I’ve done it before. A feeling of dread settles in the pit of my stomach. I go for an evening walk around the trails.

skull bolete 1

In the woods on the crest of Laurel Ridge I spy what looks like the top of a human skull resting on the moss: an enormous, bone-yellow bolete. I stand looking down at it for a while, and it’s almost an out-of-body experience.

A scolding blue jay finally snaps me out of it. It’s not clear if it’s scolding me or some other large predator, so I stand for a while longer, listening and alert.

A couple hundred feet away on another trail, a few clumps of the aptly named black trumpet mushroom are silhouetted against the moss, poised as if to herald the coming night. I consider harvesting them — they’re delicious — but decide instead to leave them alone and return the next morning with a camera.

black trumpet 2

It’s nearly dark when I get back. I fetch a large coffee can from the basement of my parents’ house and put a splash of gasoline on the bottom, then find a sturdy piece of cardboard and a box of kitchen matches. I carry it all down to the yard in front of the porch, set up a dim lantern, and gingerly remove the lattice. I can see immediately that my tried-and-true method of placing a can over the nest and quickly sliding in a cardboard lid, severing the nest’s overhead attachment, won’t work this time. The nest isn’t going to fit in the can — it’s already almost as big as my head. What’s more, it appears to be securely attached to the beam behind it.

yellow jacket nest

Plan B is simpler and more brutal. Dad mentioned he had a can of wasp and ant spray, so I go fetch that, instead: d-trans Allethrin. Rainbow brand.

Fortunately, it’s a cool night — the temperature is already in the low 50s — so resistance should be minimal. I direct a long blast of the insecticide into the opening of the nest from about two feet away, then stand back. An eerie, high-pitched boiling sound ensues. Imagine all the inhabitants of a paper city shrieking in unison. I stand in the dark listening for three or four minutes until it dies away.

The next morning, only a single hornet circles the nest, which I examine in daylight for the first time. It’s beautiful, if you can ignore the small corpses clogging the entrance. It would make a fine lampshade, I think.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

29 Comments


  1. Great photos and an interesting though sad story. My husband has on occasion used a blowtorch at dusk effectively, keeping himself well-protected with beekeeper’s head covering and heavy clothing, in case. Not advisable to use a flame against the house though.

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    1. Right, that wouldn’t have worked in this case. But fire does seem like a good option if it means avoiding pesticides. I don’t think it’s any kinder to the insects.

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    1. It ain’t fun. Lucille Clifton has a good poem about killing cockroaches, which ends something like, “now whenever I enter a room, I watch myself — I’m not sure what I might do”

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  2. Sad ending to a wonderfully told story. Those trumpet mushrooms are interesting. I’ve never seen a mushroom like that before. Have a great night.

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    1. Thanks. Actually, they look a lot like chantarelles, except for the color. Apparently some people use them to flavor wine.

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  3. Yes, wonderfully told murder story. I’ve never seen a wasps’ nest but would have felt the same reluctance and done the same.
    Great photo too but I can’t understand it: is it taken from above? Head-on? Was the nest hanging down from a beam?

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    1. From below. There’s a beam behind it, supporting the floorboards which you can see at the top of the photo. The entrances to paper wasp nests always point more or less toward the ground.

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  4. It’s all beautiful, Dave, as usual.

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  5. Wasps are such an organized horror, with the aural (“high-pitched boiling sounds”) at the crux. Once found a nest only by tracking a hideous, unidentifable, Lovecraftian smacking. The wasp sting is gratuitous; they could rule us all via masticatory sound.

    From our paper planet,
    we kill by masticide

    And viz the lampshade plan: go rent Alien.

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    1. My worldview doesn’t admit the Lovecraftian, but you’re right about Alien — and the genius of that movie and its successors depended in large part on the monster-makers’ knowledge of wasp biology. For scarey as hornets might seem, they are nothing compared to ichneumon wasps which lay their eggs in living hosts.

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  6. Forgot to say that the Black Trumpet pic is straight from Pompeii: wonderful.

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  7. So, I guess that kinda killed your evening, huh? ;-)

    Seriously, these wasps wouldn’t show you any comparable compassion, nor even a guest’s respect for their host.

    The general type is broad and diverse, including a lot of important pollinators (IIRC, all fig types are pollinated by the same species of wasp). Even those horrific parasitic types serve to limit the numbers of their prey species. Hornets, however, are prone to violating the Modern First Rule of Survival: Don’t mess with the humans!

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    1. Yeah, I agree that wasps serve a vital purpose in the ecological web. But it’s also natural for human beings to feel some revulsion toward them, and to react with horror to learning about ichneumon parasitism. I think it’s vitally important for nature lovers to acknowledge the fearful and the horrific in nature — otherwise we risk sentimentalizing the natural world, which subtly serves the interests of the exploiters. Fear (call it awe or healthy respect if you like) is the beginning of wisdom, just as the Bible says.

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      1. Indeed — there’s a certain strain of anti-environmentalist “concern troll”, who’s refrain is “we don’t need to limit ourselves, Nature will take care of things”. To which the proper response is, “you wouldn’t like how Nature takes care of things!”

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  8. Wow. At once wonderfully in-touch with nature and resigned to the need to dispatch with it for our own self-preservation. The pictures are excellent.

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  9. Dave I sympathise with your reluctance to destroy the nest. It is exquisitely beautiful. Here at Ty Isaf it’s been a year of wasps, a multitude of wild bees and a plague of something far from welcome that I’ll come to in a moment.

    On the terrace where we eat we’ve been sharing our table with dozens of wasps, all dedicatedly gnawing away at the wood to make nesting material. In a few decades the table may well become wafer-thin due to their attentions, and collapse in a heap, but not in our time. They never bother us, seem not to be interested in our food, and we just take care not to put a hand on them or sit without checking first. There will be nests somewhere, but as yet nothing that’s caused us any trouble. Neither of us have been stung. We don’t flap our arms about, and they oblige us by being polite and keeping their tails to themselves.

    However our friends in France have discovered in their garden nests of a dreaded ‘Asiatic’ hornet, a relatively new arrival in their part of the Dordogne. These creatures are larger and notably more aggressive than the local hornets, and moreover at the site of where they sting the flesh deliquesces, eaten away by enzymes in the venom. The wounds are truly dreadful. Horror movie time! Moreover there’s something in the venom that alerts other hornets in the area to attack, and so tangling with a nest is a very risky business indeed. Liz and Graham are dedicated vegetarians of long standing, lovers of nature and proud of the variety of wildlife on their property, including the large families of wild boar that come to drink and wallow in their pond. But these in-comer hornets are far from welcome, and to date seem impervious to the usual poisons.

    Now to my own unwelcome guests. Here in Wales the weather has been wonderful for the garden. Sun and rain in equal measure, so that the blossoms in the herbaceous borders have been profligate. We look set for a bumper crop of plums, pears and apples, though it has not been wet enough for the cherries, which have dropped un-ripened to the grass. But we are besieged in the house with plagues of flies that gain access through the open doors and windows. (Too hot to have them closed, and we don’t have your custom of screens for porches and windows, though if this carries on we’ll have to make similar adaptations.) These look like small houseflies, but the damned things bite, and I’m told they’re ‘sheep flies’. In the past I’ve caught any houseflies with a jar and postcard, ferrying them outside to release them. No chance of that with this plague. We use fly-papers… not pretty but effective… and we now have two fly-swats in every room in the house. I’ve transformed into a ferocious killer, stalking the place with blood in my eye, seeking out every last fly before we take to our bed last thing at night. Too many times this Summer I’ve thrown back the duvet of a morning to see three or four flies whizz out from under it, and find itchy bites on my pulse points and hot spots. Peter is slightly less prone to being bitten, but these things love my blood. We welcome the bats, the slow-worms, the lizards and bees that find their way into the house. The frogs too, and the moths and cockchafers that blunder in at night, drawn by the lamps. But 2009 has been the year of the sheep fly, and I wouldn’t mind if I never saw another one!

    Your skull-like bolete and the funnel mushroom are spectacular. Did you eat the mushroom after taking the photograph?

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    1. Hi Clive,

      Thanks for the report. Your garden sounds like paradise (and I’ve seen pictures, so I know it’s close!). We visited some Amish neighbors in the valley today to buy grocieries, and they had a front yard like that: trees and bushes heavy with fruit, rows of vegetables and flowers. Most American front yards haven’t looked like that since the 1940s. But no screens?! Not even the Amish are that backward! :) The last place I visited where screens were a rarity was rural Honduras in 1995. The stainless steel wndow screen is one of the greatest inventions of modern times, in my opinion.

      I hadn’t heard about those Asian hornets. Good lord! Of course, we have our fair share of invasive plant and insect species from East Asia, as well, such as the woolly adelgids that are decimating the hemlock trees in our hollow, or the emerald ash borers and Asian longhorn beetles that threaten other forest trees. Global trade is one of the biggest contributors to the degradation of global biodiversity… But that’s a rant for another time.

      I do admire your tolerance of the wasps. We eat a lot of meals outside — at a metal table — but I can’t say we’ve been quite as tolerant of the hornets that sometimes buzz our food, usually in late summer and early fall.

      I decided the trumpet mushrooms weren’t enough to bother with this year, though I have collected them in the past.

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  10. “It’s beautiful, if you can ignore the small corpses clogging the entrance. It would make a fine lampshade, I think.”

    Those sentences are chilling.

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  11. We’re having quite a year for social insects here, too. As we put siding on the new house, we would find new nests on likely corners, apparently built overnight. We always have paper wasps and mud daubers (year round, as the old house attic is full of nests) but this year there are more hornets and carpenter ants than usual. Perhaps they’re moving up out the woods because of the wet weather.

    It makes me wish for army ants. When I lived in Costa Rica, we would occasionally have army ants sweep through our house. We would just leave, as would the scorpions, lizards, mice, and anything else that could move faster than army ants. It usually took a couple of hours for them to finish foraging, and when we came home, all insects and nests were gone, along with any food not in metal or glass containers. It usually took several days for the scorpions to find their way home–very nice!

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    1. Paper wasps and mud daubers, of course, are hardly a threat, and I’ll only remove a nest of I have to paint right there. Otherwise, I like having them around and admiring their architectural skills.

      I like the army ant approach to housecleaning! Sounds ideal. Not that I have scorpions, of course, but the spiders, earwigs, mice, etc. can get out of control here.

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  12. And… a hiking buddy just got hospitalized. He found what he thought was a sinkhole in his garden, and took a trowel to it, planning to fill it in. It turned out to be a ground nest of yellowjackets. (He’ll be OK in a few days, but it was pretty nasty. Necrosis, infection, and I don’t know what-all.)

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    1. Hoo boy. I was traumatized by a underground yellow jacket nest when I was four or five, but fortunately that was my last experience with that particular nightmare. There were several incidents with bald-faced hornet nests in blackberry patches, however.

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