by Mimi Hedl
With enough below freezing days to ensure I wouldn’t encounter any live wasps, I braced the ladder against the west side of the house where, unbeknownst to me, cicada killer wasps had built a nest this summer. I could now patch the hole so the wasps wouldn’t claim the site again and perhaps colonize the entire interior of the west wall. I had nightmarish visions of having to move out of my house because wasps had invaded, as a scene from The Secret Life of Bees portrayed.
It wasn’t until Jeremy came over to trim mimosa limbs dragging on the roof of the house this summer that I realized I had resident wasps. I’d noticed unusually large wasps flying around the gardens, but wasps don’t bother me and, in general, I welcome any insects or spiders until they create a problem. Frankly, I appreciate them and know, somehow, they fit into the web of the gardens.
Jeremy and his dad lassoed a limb, then pulled it down low enough to cut. I admired the way John had thrown the rope, calmly and carefully, just like he did when he’d try to catch a colt or a horse to break, and had caught the limb, oh so casually. As I stood there admiring the process Jeremy hollered at me, “Holy cow Mimi, look at all these wasps!” To which I responded, “Where?” When my eyes adjusted to the sight, up there by the floor to Hilary’s bedroom, I too felt amazed. Going in and out of a hole the size of a silver dollar, one after another, wasps filed in, then others filed out.
We stood there, watching the parade. Jeremy couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the wasps and the hole they’d carved out in one of the boards of this board and batten house. “There’s a lot to look at Jeremy,” I replied, “and usually my head’s looking down, not up.”
“You better do something about them!” he exclaimed. And I said, “like what?” He told me to get a wasp spray. The spray could direct the flow of poison from 30 feet or more, and that should take care of the problem.
Obviously there’d been a weak spot in the board the wasps had selected and the wasps decided to develop the hole as an opening for their nest. At least that’s my assessment. Both Jeremy and John frightened me about what the wasps could do that the next day, on my trip to town, I went into Dollar General and bought a $5 spray can of wasp poison, hoping no one would see me with this illicit purchase.
Now when I think about it all, I should’ve written the Conservation Department and asked their advice. I shouldn’t have reacted so quickly. After all, the wasps had been there for a good long while, in order to have built up such an impressive colony, again my take on it all. Another week or two wouldn’t have made much difference. I didn’t have an emergency situation. I let the fear of my neighbors instill in me the same fear and I reacted, well, like I don’t want to react.
Later that August night after I’d bought my weapon, darkness descended and all good wasps had gone to bed, I stood under the target, shook my can, and sprayed. Wasps streamed out of the hole. I sprayed again, and again, like a madwoman, emptying my can, targeted on that one hole up there, by the floor to Hilary’s bedroom. Then I ran into the house, turned off the lights, and cowered like a coward.
The next morning, I put on my bee veil, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, socks and shoes, no sandals, and went to check on the scene. Casually, as if nothing had happened wasps flitted in, wasps floated out. I saw an ugly stain running down the targeted board, but no other sign of damage. No dead wasps on the ground, below the nest, no distress from the active hive, absolutely no damage except what I’d inflicted on myself by reacting instead of thinking. (does this seem like a recurrent theme of mine?!)
Into the house I go. I pull out my pamphlet on common wasps of Missouri and on page 3 I find this photo of “my” wasps: sphecius speciosus or Cicada killer. As you can tell from the brief description, this wasp isn’t supposed to nest in holes of houses, in the cozy cellulose insulation. They are called ground nesters. So why did they decide to use the hole in the wall as a site for their nest? This I will probably never know. I can’t say I saw them carrying any cicadas into the nest, but I didn’t spend hours observing them.
After my woeful attempt to eradicate them, I left them alone, forgot about them, even when my daughter warned me about letting anything take up residence in the walls. I figured I’d deal with the problem later, and I did. As summer moved into autumn, I’d look up now and then and see the constant activity. I’d admire their industriousness. Notice the hole getting larger. Call them by name, cicada killers, and go on my way.
One morning in mid-November, I heard a loud sound, like a jack hammer pounding, pounding away. Out I went to check on who was doing what. And there I saw my jack hammer, up by the hole to the cicada killer wasp nest. A pileated woodpecker, the most majestic woodpecker in these Ozarks. I watched it going into the hole, pulling out wasps, devouring them one after another. I shook my head and laughed. Woodpeckers check all cavities in trees, but I’d never guess they’d check the one in this house too!
I gave Woody enough time to fill up on wasps, then on a recent Indian summer Monday before Thanksgiving, with blue sky and 70°, I found a 3 1/2” weathered oak board about 12” long that would fit perfectly, covering the hole and some on both sides of the hole. With carpenter’s belt, drill, hammer and nails, I mounted the ladder to solve my problem.
Originally I thought I’d have to do have Jeremy do the job. He’s a busy man. I had the time and the weather offered me the opportunity. The job couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I felt calm and in charge. I even pretended to be a professional, what with tool belt and all. I made no mistakes. Dropped no nails. Simply attended to the task and disembarked from my ladder, putting away all tools, even the ladder.
I stood back and admired my work, folded my arms across my chest like I see carpenters do, smiled, congratulated myself, and went inside for a well-deserved lunch.
(I’ve included this photograph of a cardinal’s nest as this is the season for finding nests. I could have a great scavenger hunt by listing the nests of the six or eight bird’s nests I recognize, and sending the scavengers on their way. The craftsmanship runs the gambit. Even the nests that look like they were thrown together in a hurry have their own charm.)