Thursday, September 11, 2003

Ingenuity vs. the wasps

By David Horst

This is the story of a wife's "I told you so."

A few weeks  ago, my wife spotted, in an oak tree in our llama pasture, a volleyball-sized hornet nest. The gray, papery nest hung entwined on a branch about 5 feet off the ground.

"One of the llamas is going to try to eat a leaf off of that branch and get stung," she said, issuing a call to action.

We had both already been stung this summer when we unwittingly disturbed other nests, so we knew how aggressively baldfaced hornets defend their homes. I'm a firm believer in letting nature take its course so I was hesitant to mess with a hornet nest that hadn't even been noticed up until then.

These inverted-pear-shaped paper nests are impressive works of architecture. They house multiple egg-filled combs and up to thousands of adults. So called for its white face on a black and white body, the baldfaced hornet is actually a wasp in the yellowjacket family. They can sting fast and often.

"When their nest is threatened, they're very aggressive," Prof. Phil Pellitteri of the University of Wisconsin-Madison entomology department, said. He gets calls every year about this time concerning yellowjackets and wasps. The population is about normal this year, he said, but unusually low activity for the past two years makes it seem worse.

A week or so passed and it happened that my wife's brother, Kim, was visiting from Maryland. While we were out in the pasture, Kathy Louise, a young female, ambled over to the oak tree and stretched her neck to grab a leaf.

I moved in slow motion toward the animal, my mouth emitting a stifled "no-o-o-o."

Too late. She pulled down on a leaf attached to the very branch that supported the baldfaced hornet nest. A swarm shot instantly from the nest, repeatedly stinging the invader's snout. One of the wasps inflicted a painful sting next to my wife's eye.

You can about imagine what she said, but it started with, "I told you ..."

That nest was not going to remain to endanger her beloved animals. Kim and I set about pondering how to dislodge this nest of now highly agitated wasps. It was a challenge, but I brought to the table and resourcefulness of a former reporter and he the intellect of a Yale-educated economist.

Had we been able to access the Internet in the pasture, here's the advice we would have received from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Web site: "A full wasp suit sealed at the wrist, ankles and collar is recommended when disposing of a hornet nest." An online article by Pellitteri suggests waiting until evening, using a flashlight with a red beam that wasps can't see and spraying a special insecticide that freezes them in midair.

Instead, in the heat of the afternoon, my wife and I donned leather gloves and raincoats with the hoods pulled tight. We rejected insecticides because it was in an area where the llamas eat hay. We needed to contain the threat.

A garbage bag slipped over the nest and tied shut, Kim suggested, actually hitting on one of the recommended approaches. But leaves on the branches made that a tough move. We decided instead to snip the branch with a tree-trimmer, dropping the nest into a precisely placed garbage can and slamming on the lid.

Kim was working up some econometric model to predict the exact bend of the branch and path of the nest as the branch is cut. We opted instead to raise the garbage can closer to the nest with a pair of sawhorses.

I slipped the tree trimmer into place, gave the blade a quick snap and the nest landed right on target. We waited a few minutes for the wasps to settle down and my wife snapped on the lid, completing the mission with no further stings. We set the can out in the sun and the nest buzzes no more.

Pelletteri says old lore has it that you can predict the amount of snowfall based on how high in the trees the wasps build their nests. Just what I need, a wasp showing up after a mild winter to tell me, "I told you so."

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