I was recently invited to a friend’s newly purchased house to help them restore an old garden in the back yard. There were six raised beds built of cedar that were in very workable condition, although the beds were overgrown with weeds and the soil was in serious need of amending. We got busy with shovel and rake and soon had half of the beds cleared of weeds and ready to plant the summer crop. By the end of the day we wanted to have tomatoes, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, squash and a lot of other vegetables planted either as starts or from seed. When we were half done with the project we retired to a covered porch in order to relax in the shade and have a cold beer. Upon sitting down in the deck chairs my friend noticed a wasp nest in the corner of the roof over his deck. “Just a minute” he said, and disappeared into the house. He emerged a few minutes later with a spray can. Walking over to the corner where the nest was he prepared to cut loose.
“Whoa, wait a minute. What are you doing” I shouted.
“I’m going to kill those wasps” was the answer, and he raised the can again.
“Bad idea” I exclaimed, rising up out of my chair in case the need arose to physically restrain my friend. “Why on earth do you want to do that?” My friend lowered the can but looked at me like I had lost my mind.
“Because they’re wasps. They sting. And besides, they chew the wood on my house to make the paper for their nests” he said, and he began to raise the can again. This time I got out of my chair and told him to put the can down slowly, keep both hands where I could see them, and sit his hind end down in the chair and drink the cold beer that I extended to him. My friend laughed, took the beer, and sat in his chair. He knew that I am an organic gardener and so wasn’t surprised by my outburst, although he was unsure of what paper wasps had to do with gardening. I proceeded to fill in that lapse in his education.
“How many times have we been stung today” I asked?
“None” was the reply.
“And that wasp nest was there all the time and probably a lot more just like it as well, huh?”
“What’s that got to do with anything” he asked. And so I told him.
“Those wasps couldn’t care less about you or me or anyone else. They would much rather be putting their stingers into caterpillars and cabbage worms that would otherwise be eating your vegetables that we’ll soon be planting. They paralyze the hungry little critters and then lay their eggs on them so that when their young hatch they’ll have fresh meat to feed on.”
“Ugh” was my friend’s reply.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t be my first meal choice either, but it seems to work for them really well and it will help you to keep pests to a minimum without turning your garden into the Love Canal” I said, referring to a chemical dump that was covered up in some eastern state and a neighborhood built over it.
“Well, I got stung last year by one of these while I was mowing the lawn”.
“I’ll bet that wasp came up out of the ground” I said.
“Yes, it did. And I nuked it good”.
“I don’t blame you; that was a yellow jacket. Yellow jackets have a very bad attitude, especially in the fall. I have a theory about yellow jackets.
“What’s that” he asked, knowing that something absurd was coming.
“When God created everything and said that it was good, Lucifer came up to him and asked ‘can I create something” Huh? Huh? Can I? Just a little something?’ God knew that it was a bad idea but he was a little soft with Lucifer, who was a high strung but otherwise didn’t seem to be such a bad kid. ‘OK,’ said God, ‘but don’t do anything stupid.’
‘I wouldn’t do anything stupid; you know me!’
‘That’s what I’m talking about’ said God, but before he could say another word Lucifer snapped his fingers and BAM: there were ticks. BAM: there were spiders (some people say snakes, but I disagree) and BAM: there were yellow jackets. God was horrified and said ‘OK, that does it. You’re grounded for, like, eternity’. And that’s how we got into this mess.”
My friend laughed and said “so I can nuke the yellow jackets and you won’t have a cow?”
“Yeah, it’s alright if they are in your yard or where they would be a threat to you or your family. Otherwise I just leave them alone unless they are buzzing me. Then it’s personal.”
“But what about them eating my house” he asked. That paper comes from somewhere.”
“It does indeed” I replied. “It comes from dead wood and live plant stems. Painted buildings made of commercial lumber is a great place to build a nest but not very tasty. The wasp is getting its fibers for nest building from out there”. I pointed out to an overgrown vacant lot a few houses down from my friend’s new place. I can’t count how many hours I’ve worked in my yard sharing space with honey bees, bumblebees and wasps of all kinds and never had one bit of trouble, and my house has lots of nests but it’s still standing.
My friend knew that I practically lived in my yard from late spring through fall, so he was certain that i knew what I was talking about. We yakked for a while longer and his wife brought out some snacks for us to munch on before we got back to work. Before long however a yellow critter began buzzing around our heads and hovering over our salsa. With little effort or fanfare I removed my sweat-stained baseball cap and awaited my moment. When it came I struck like a cobra. “Thwak!” The stunned bug lay wriggling on the concrete deck. I arose and went over to it, then ground it into a greasy stain.
“Yellow jacket?” was my friend’s two word question.