Close Encounters of the Stinging Kind 

Learning to live with wasps

We've all heard the term "busy as a bee" and even as children we learned that honeybees were the workaholics of the insect world. It's fascinating to watch bees flit from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollen for food. You can stand close to them as they work or stand near their hive and the bees won't care. Their type-A personalities are way too busy to bother about some voyeur hanging around. Wasps, on the other hand, care a great deal about humans near their nests.

Although wasps aren't furry and cute like honeybees, they are very beneficial insects. They feed themselves and their young on countless insects that ordinarily would damage shade trees and crops.

There are two types of paper nest-building wasps in Idaho--yellow jackets and paper wasps (Polistes). Yellow jackets build those football-shaped nests with a single entry hole at the bottom that kids like to take to school in the fall for their science class, while paper wasps make those flat topped, upside down umbrella-shaped nests with the downward-facing honeycomb of exposed cells. Yellow jackets are those flying yellow and black brutes with bad manners at picnics, always trying to eat your fried chicken. Paper wasps make their own picnic of other insects; they're the fighter jets of the wasp world. Paper wasps have a narrow waist and are longer, thinner and sleeker than yellow jackets.

Last week I encountered two paper wasp nests on a juniper tree in my garden. Having run into paper wasps last year in a memorable way, I left the area when they started to dart out from their nest to buzz me. Buzzing you is their way of saying that you're too close to their nest. I understand their language now, but last year I didn't. Last year, in my concentrated zeal to pull the weeds around a lilac bush, I failed to hear that introductory warning buzz around my head. What happened next was a wake up call. A wasp landed just above my kneecap, and before I could make a move to brush it off, it gave me a royal jab that burnt like liquid fire.

I had always heard that a bee sting was like a pin prick and a wasp sting was more like being hit with a two-by-four that has a nail projecting out of it. In my opinion, that image is pretty accurate. I jumped up, hurling an angry expletive at the fleeing insect. In that adrenaline-packed moment I was ready for war, and mad enough to squish that darn thing with my bare hands, but then I turned my head toward the direction that insect had taken and froze in place. There, hanging like a weird gray ornament from one of the lilac branches not more than three feet from my face, was a large, flat topped paper wasp nest and sitting on top of the nest facing me, lined up like jets on the deck of an aircraft carrier, were 20 to 30 little black and yellow fighter pilots just waiting for take-off orders. They were alert and looking right at me with their strange, triangle-shaped heads. I stumbled backwards and hurriedly left the area. With just one shot, the wasps had won that skirmish.

As I tried to doctor the venomous burning in my swollen knee, I thought about all those wasps staring at me and shuddered. I was very appreciative of their method of diplomacy in sending out only one reconnaissance scout to tell me to "move along." (Wet tea bags or meat tenderizer works wonders for reducing the pain caused by a sting.)

I abandoned that weeding project by the lilac for the rest of the season. I could have sprayed the nest with a pesticide but I didn't want to kill those beneficial insects, and besides, I had plenty of other places that needed weeding.

Now back to those two nests I found last week hanging in the juniper. I decided to try a new tactic. I sprinkle irrigated the area for an hour to get the wasps and their nests thoroughly wet. Wasps can't fly when they're wet, so while those little buggers were busy trying to dry off, I began my weeding project right under their noses. I even tempted fate by trimming the juniper near their nests just to see how incapacitated they really were. Of course, I kept a wary eye on the little terrors the whole time I worked, and if they started flying around again I turned the sprinkler back on. It took me several days to get the entire ground around the juniper weeded and replanted, but each day I used my sprinkler trick with continuing success. It was a win-win situation. The juniper and the new plantings got plenty of water and the wasps didn't appear any worse off once they dried out.

You may think I was flirting with disaster the whole time, but it only seems that way. I've come to realize that wasps are actually easier to deal with than some people--because they're predictable, they give you fair warning before striking, and their little insect brains don't understand that very human concept of revenge.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail her at sbell@uidaho.edu.

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