#Penntopaper: WWOOF UK Coordinator Scarlett Penn shares some waspish words

Aug 28, 2019

Earlier this year, we decided to have a family gathering here at my smallholding to mark my Uncle Jim’s 80th birthday (fashionably dubbed #UJ80 because you can’t do anything now without hashtagging it). 29 of my family were to descend upon my events field at the end of July.

A few weeks before the party I noticed there were a lot of wasps around the events shed and opening the door, found they’d built a very pretty, delicate nest on the inside of the door. It was quite a big one. A wasps’ nest in most other places simply be a thing of curiousity but here it was problematic because, quite apart from the from the fact most people don’t share my tolerance of wasps and turn into flailing windmills at the mere hint of one, a member of my family is highly allergic and carries two EpiPens in case he’s stung.

So…what to do? Like I say, I don’t mind wasps. I know they’re irritating when they doggedly try and drown themselves in your summer cocktail or take up residence in the Victoria plum, but I’ve never had one make the first move toward aggression,  and they disappear of their own accord at the end of summer. They also can be the gardener’s friend by pollenating plants that fussier bees don’t favour and, when they decide they need protein, they’ll eat an insect grub that happens to be plentiful that year, making them an excellent population stabiliser. And quite apart from all that, I never feel I have the right to exterminate a colony of creatures just because they happen to be in my way.

I needed to move them but I’d never heard of anyone doing that, so I did some quick research online. All I found were upsetting scenes of various ways to smash / trash / squash / poison these creatures. The only useful information I did discover were ways to deter them from building a nest in the first place. One suggestion was to use sprigs of mint – apparently unpalatable to them – and another was to pin up a fake wasps’ nest, so they’d think there was already a colony in the area. You can buy these fake nests online but you can also make your own using a brown paper bag and scrunched up bits of newspaper stuffed inside, fashioned into a circle or conical shape. The paper bag  is then tied at the neck and the whole thing pinned or hung on the surface in the way that a wasp’s nest would protrude.

So I was on my own; I had to invent my own method of moving them alive. I have a bee keeping suit and initially it seemed a fairly simple concept. But the more I mentally engaged with the physical reality of actually doing it, the more scared I became. I imagined them going berzerk, leaping on me in a black cloud of rage, doing what came naturally to them in defense of their home and larvae and stinging me to within an inch of my life.

At this point I phoned up the local pest control guy. I asked if there was any way he could remove the nest without killing the wasps and he laughed like I was mad. I tentatively told him that I had this idea to move it with my bee suit on. He laughed again, said ‘good luck, let me know how it goes’ and – still laughing – rung off. 

I was deterred, and yet at the same time, all the more determined. I started to devise various plans, the most practical of which seemed to be to capture them in a similar way you would a spider on a wall – with a glass and a piece of card underneath. But the materials needed to be more robust so I settled on bird fat-ball containers (like clear buckets with lids) and a thin and flexible plastic chopping board as the scraper. I’d also read it’s good to have a sturdy water mister / hose on standby when dealing with wasps, ‘in case of emergency’.

Finally, on a very hot evening and – mildly alarmingly – on a full moon, I convinced a brave friend to don the other bee suit. Both of us put on several padding layers and were drenched in sweat before we even left the lounge. We realised we were supremely nervous, and agreed we needed to try channel that energy instead to conscious presence and waspy love in our thoughts. We gathered all our items and trudged down the field in concentrated silence. 

Once there, we got straight down to business, quickly slicing the nest off the door and dropping it in the tub. It broke in the process and we ended up three pieces of nest in three tubs (thankfully I’d been prepared for that eventuality). We exchanged quiet expressions of disbelief. The wasps had so far been entirely passive. We put the lids loosely over the top and carried them quickly to the farthest corner of the field. We devised a way to flip off the lids with long sticks, expecting clouds of angry insects to explode from the buckets…but no. Nothing. Some lazily came out to explore but they seemed completely content to accept their new residence. My friend and I stared at each other in amazement. So much for their vicious reputation.

We returned to the events shed where there were still a few creatures buzzing around. I’d already prepared a fake nest to deter re-building, which I pinned where the old nest had been. I also put several sprigs of mint in the vicinity. We gathered our implements and walked back  to the house, disrobed and literally wrung out our clothes. We were disbelieving and jubilant in equal measure.

The next day I returned to the shed, expecting to see the swarm back and rebuilding. But no, not even the odd scout. I did the same the following day with the same result. We’d really done it!

The #UJ80 celebrations went brilliantly,  apart from (predictably) the weather. I made a big spray bottle of natural insect repellant (essential oils of citronella, eucalyptus, lavendar, tea tree and mint, topped up with water) and liberally and regularly doused everyone. Although we had visitations from wasps when fruit, birthday cake and other sweet treats appeared, it was on the scale of ‘normal’ for a summer event. But even some those few visitors I saw squashed onto plates, flattened in napkins and drowned in drinks. I didn’t say anything – it’s more-or-less considered normal to do that – but neither did I feel OK about it.

I regret to say it did all become too much for me at one point though when, over lunch, a pre-teen stated with great conviction that wasps serve no purpose and should all be destroyed. Rather than the desirable pedagogical response from my adult self, I charmlessly snapped “you’re saying this from a position of total and utter ignorance. I mean, you have precisely NO IDEA what these insects do in nature, do you?”  

She and her father were slightly startled, but recovered to ask me some questions. I was afforded a brief window to explain a little of the wasp’s place in the ecosystem and was getting started on how, in an intricate web of life, everything has a role: “At the moment we are in danger as we see ourselves as separate from the web of life, sitting like kings on top of the pyramid in a hierarchichal structure. We seem ignorant of the fact our ways of life are causing everything ‘below’ us in the pyramid to crumble and if it gets worse, being at the top, we have the furthest to fall.” (in fact that’s a quote from myself, from an article that until recently I never new existed.) However I got cut off in my prime by the tinking of a glass to signal a few words from the birthday boy and the flow of #UJ80 shifted. 

So that’s the end of the story. Ah, and in case you’re wondering, yes I did phone back the pest control guy. He remembered me well and, although it was difficult to tell – me having done him out of a job and all – I think he was quite impressed. Which I’ll take, because I am quite impressed myself. I went out of my way to be virtuous for my Vespula vulgaris’s and now I’m feeling the glow of good karma.


Photo credits:
1 & 2 – unknown
3 & 4 – Scarlett Penn

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