On destroying a wasp nest
A few weeks ago back at the start of what should have been early spring, I discovered the delicate honeycombed beginnings of a wasp’s nest. A spell of unseasonable bad weather meant that I hadn’t been out into the covered area beside our house for a while. This curious space of corrugated plastic and fence panels had been put up by a previous occupant to serve as an outdoor workspace sheltered from the weather with just enough room for a car. This is where we have been starting our vegetable seedlings, and it was while I was busy repotting some runner beans that I heard the distinctive strimmer-like whine of a wasp somewhere above me.
I’m happy enough to live alongside any number of creepy crawlies, but the distant microlite buzz of a wasp is something that never fails to trigger something timid yet strangely primal deep within me. That sudden spurt of adrenaline is more than enough to have me abandon whatever project I’m working and skitter away back inside to take shelter and offer mildly hysterical words of warning to Debbie.
“There’s a fucking wasp out there!”
Acts of selfless heroism aside, on this occasion I looked around for the offending wasp while simultaneously taking a mental inventory of where I had last seen the can of wasp spray. Homing in on the tell-tale electric hum of an insectoid hooligan I spotted the waspish rogue drifting threateningly around the apex of the plastic roof, landing occasionally on something about the size of a golf ball and the colour of an old sponge, open on one side revealing its mysterious inner chambers, much like the blasted remains of the Death Star in Empire Strikes Back.
How they know how to build such remarkable structures without the aid of complex schematics and advanced planning permission really is incredible, no matter how unsettling a hovering overhead wasp can be in a confined space. They enter this world with that knowledge stamped in their DNA, seemingly able to craft the most miraculous of intangible structures on instinct alone. For the sake of comparison, I am a member of the supposedly most advanced species on the planet, and yet routinely will have to ask for the dishwasher instructions to be explained to me if it’s been more than a couple of days since I last loaded it. If left unattended the only instinct that I can sense whispering to me from the darkness is one to go in search of snack foods.
This hardly seems fair in evolutionary terms, but then I won’t die at the end of the summer in a benchtop puddle of someone’s spilt pint. More’s the pity.
As a kid I remember my father presenting me with a Kilner jar containing the perfectly formed papery husk of a nest he had carefully removed from an attic joist, an acrobatic feat that he had achieved with the aid of my lime green rockpooling net, the type with a thin bamboo shaft and useless floppy head. On my first outing with that net on holiday on the south coast, I recall lifting what I thought was an interesting crustacean from a gently lapping rockpool only to learn, with a dawning sense of horror, that it was in fact a buoyant dog turd. I’ve never looked at rockpooling nets in quite the same way ever since, but I digress.
I put the jar on my windowsill and for a time would squint at its intricate beauty until one day, gripped by one of those shamefully destructive urges that occasionally take hold of a child’s nihilistic imagination, I shook it to pieces like someone loosening the contents of a ketchup bottle.
Why I did this I can’t be sure. I suspect that there was something alien and quietly horrific in its fierce beauty, that and the tallow coloured lifeless grubs that began to tumble out of the interior ventricles looked to me like grotesque punctuation marks, and quite possibly something that might awaken in the night and crawl into a defenceless ear canal while one slept. The memory is fuzzy, but for whatever reason I decided that it had to go, so I destroyed it, and with just a few violent shakes reduced the ephemeral masterpiece to confetti.
“They make them from saliva and chewed wood,” my dad had said as he unfolded what constituted his limited knowledge of wasps. “It’s basically paper,” he told me, or words to that effect, “marvellous, isn’t it!”
Well yes and no. But truly, how many creatures other than ourselves do we know of that make paper? It seems like there’s an interesting metaphor in there somewhere. In cartoons, especially American cartoons, wasp nests are often rugby ball shaped and tethered by a single delicate filament to a tree branch, ready to plucked and hurled at a pursuer. I’ve not encountered one like this, although I have encountered large swarms mingling, some might say ceremoniously amongst the high sticky branches of pines while pottering about in the woods.
Studying the nest in the covered area I also recalled a time when attending a car boot sale as a youngster I found a tabletop strewn with interesting pieces of fishing tackle, amongst which was a small yellow plastic container with the words “ant eggs” written on a strip of masking tape along its side in black marker.
“What’s this?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.
“Real ant eggs, innit” came the reply, which the seller claimed to have gathered himself the previous day.
“Roach love, em!” he added with visible enthusiasm, “you can’t fail with ant eggs!”
This logical progression must have seemed impeccable to the fairy-tale level of imbecilic stupidity that served as my operating system throughout most of my tender years, so I handed over my pound coin and immediately started to picture the great piscine adventures that awaited me on our Sunday trip to the local canal. After a few luckless hours on the bankside this initial excitement had been winnowed into abjection, ably assisted by the growing realisation that I had probably been conned. So naturally I decided to try eating them instead.
I’d seen Attenborough do something similar with a witchetty grub on a BBC documentary, so a miniscule ant egg should be totally fine. God only knows why this thought struck me as sensible as I experimentally popped a single ant egg onto my outstretched tongue before squishing it against the roof of my mouth, but I imagine that in that moment I pictured myself the star of a “Crocodile Dundee: the Younger Years” spinoff series or a sort of prototype Ray Mears.
In case you’re wondering what car boot fresh ant eggs taste like - at first, nothing. No discernible flavour whatsoever, just texture somewhere between old gummy bear and last night's leftover takeway rice. So I tried a pinch more, then another - dry, notably musty but otherwise tasteless. It quickly became apparent why the fish weren’t biting and why I should probably stop eating them. This might seem like a wasted experience but if nothing else it did leave me with a strangely potent reference point for anything grub-like that you might find in an insect nest. The eggs were probably weeks if not months old, if indeed they were eggs at all – Christ! - but I didn’t die so all was not lost in service of this admirable if not misguided spirit of culinary adventure.
Standing beneath this latest wasp nest I felt something of that old urge – not to eat the thing, but to destroy it, only this time tempered by the desire to avoid doing any needless harm. This one was within easy reach of the bathroom window, which we routinely leave open, so the thought of having to suddenly and unexpectedly contend with uninvited stinging visitor while in one of life’s more vulnerable positions struck me as a good enough reason to intervene.
Being something of a wimp I checked my escape route for any trip hazards and ensured that the wasp spray was close at hand should I have to defend myself once the terrible deed was done. Taking up position beneath the nest I let fly with the snow shovel that I use for sweeping up leaves, easily knocking the nest down on my first attempt. I then stomping on it, hard, with a booted foot and scurried away, all while emitting an emasculating whinny of involuntary nervous excitement. I must say that it’s quite a humbling realisation to discover that the totality of my resolve can be reduced to the sound of small child stepping on a squeaky toy. Should I ever face real danger or find myself fleeing from a velociraptor it’s disarming to know that rather than issuing an utterance of some significance this barely audible panicked bleating would likely be my last audible contribution.
The door firmly shut behind me I waited a sensible amount of time for the vengeful swarm, or, more accurately, solitary and presumably bewildered juvenile wasp to lose interest, before venturing apprehensively back outside. Sure enough the wasp was still there, stoically weaving a lazy figure of eight in the empty space where his nest used to be. Taking up the snow shovel for a second time, I tried in vain to waft him towards the narrow gap where the PVC roof panelling meets the creosoted fence top, but even by wasp standards of non-cooperation this one was an idiot. Open any number of windows to release a trapped insect and they will inevitably only drift further into the house or become impossibly snared behind some hard to reach corner of the curtains.
“Please, mate, go away! There’s nothing left for you here!”
Thankfully after a few more attempts he seemed to get the idea and flew off on his own accord, cutting a zigzag line across the road towards the woods on the other side, leaving me alone to contemplate my crimes.
Later that same day I happened to see an article in The Guardian written in defence of wasps. It made the usual arguments about pest control blah blah blah, Nature’s rich tapestry blah blah blah, but try as I might I just can’t love a wasp. Everything about their physiology and antisocial demeanour suggests a fundamentally dickish trait that I just can’t get past. To me, they’re the annoying boy racer charging up behind you at the lights. The drunken idiot spoiling for argument on a Friday night. You know that colleague, the one who only ever offers empty needling criticism after refusing to take part in any of the preceding consultative meetings? Captain hindsight? Yes, that right, wasp dick.
In more pensive moments I sometimes liken my experience of residual persistent anxiety to “wasp in the room anxiety” for much the same reason, my flight or fight response suddenly triggered for some seemingly trivial reason.
Even so I do feel bad about wrecking the nest that the wasp had laboured so intently construct for no other reason than to satisfy its biological need to reproduce. It’s the etymological equivalent of kicking over a small child’s sandcastle, only worse because it was also his home and nursery.