Faith Gong: Summer of the wasps

Summer is now firmly behind us. It’s the time of year when I like to snuggle up in my fall uniform (jeans and a flannel shirt) with a cup of tea (I’m weaning myself from coffee after finally admitting that it affects my digestion — because why wouldn’t you give up coffee when you’re parenting a tween, a newly crawling baby, and three children in between? But that’s a subject for another column...) As the golden light of a crisp afternoon filters through the Vermont foliage, I’m contemplating the summer that just passed.

Our family’s summer was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil, gratitude for our newly installed heat pumps, afternoons spent in our inflatable pool, and the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (referred to in our house as “the show that saved summer.”) But the thing that most defined our Summer 2020 was: wasps.

When I say “wasps,” I’m talking about “social wasps.” This category includes paper wasps, yellowjackets, and bald-faced hornets. All three live in colonies with a queen, make their nests of recycled wood fiber, have narrow wings that fold longitudinally, and can sting repeatedly. 

My initial summer wasp encounter, in early July, was with a nest of paper wasps. Paper wasps build distinctive acorn-shaped nests of grey papery material (hence their name) from wood fibers and spit. These nests are often built under eaves and windows – or, in our case, inside the chicken tractor that I was cleaning in order to resettle our teenaged chicks from the garage to the poultry yard. I didn’t notice the small wasp nest until I felt a sudden, sharp sting on my lip.

Although my lip was swollen and painful for the remainder of the day, this nest was fairly easy to remove: I doused it in Windex and scraped it into a jar for disposal. 

A short time later I encountered a second paper wasp nest, also by accident. I was removing the Velcro storm windows from our yurt when I noticed a large swarm of wasps emerging from a paper wasp nest on the ground.

“That’s funny,” I thought. “I wonder why there’s a wasp nest on the ground?”

Then I noticed the remains of the nest hanging above the frame from which I’d just ripped off another storm window. Thankfully, the storm window had knocked the nest away from me, or I’d have been swarmed by wasps while teetering atop a ladder on uneven ground. 

Perhaps the lesson in this is that although paper wasp nests should be easy to see and avoid (or destroy), we can miss them if we’re overly focused on our work and ignoring the bigger picture. As my children discovered, we can also miss them when we’re focused on our play.

It began as an idyllic late summer hike on the TAM trail from Morgan Horse Farm Road to Beldens Falls. We were joined by another family, bringing our total to seven children and two mamas. After crossing Beldens Falls on the suspension footbridge, we gathered around a picnic table to eat lunch. The children, who were anxious to explore along Otter Creek, ate quickly and ran off to the green metal staircase that leads to the portage area at the base on the Falls. My mama friend and I stayed behind to pack up the food. Then the screaming started. 

Middle-aged women can move impressively quickly when they hear their children screaming; still, the first children were already running from the staircase by the time we reached them. The hollering was intense, but through the wailing and the tears we managed to make out that something had hurt them. It felt like a bite, or a sting.

I discovered the cause when I descended the stairs to retrieve two remaining children: A paper wasp nest under the staircase landing. When our exuberant young ones had gone galloping down, they’d terrified the wasps, who exacted revenge.

It was a sad and bedraggled group that made its way back along the TAM trail to Morgan Horse Farm Road. Of seven children, five had been stung, most of them multiple times. “This was the WORST HIKE EVER!” was a repeated refrain. It was certainly memorable.

“Wow, this has really been a week of wasps,” one of my daughters remarked on the hike back. That very same week, we’d already had two encounters with yellowjackets.

If paper wasp nests are difficult to spot, yellowjacket nests are impossible. It’s almost not fair: They build their nests underground. My daughters and I had no idea where the yellowjackets came from to harass us as we attempted to eat breakfast.

On two separate days that week, I’d taken two different daughters on “breakfast dates.” We’d gotten food from Middlebury Bagel & Deli and eaten it at picnic tables in College Park. And both times, aggressive yellowjackets descended, driving us back to the minivan and curtailing what might have been leisurely breakfasts. They were more annoying than harmful, and we gleaned a fun fact from the experience: Yellowjackets are carnivores, as we learned when one hoisted an impressively large piece of my daughter’s bacon before our eyes.

The final wasp encounter of the summer happened in late September and was the least fun for me. I was doing a final weeding of our blueberry patch when I felt a pain in my thigh: Yellowjackets had built a nest under the blueberry patch, and my weeding disturbed them. They swarmed me, and I was fortunate to get away with only two stings. But what stings they were! They hurt awfully for 24 hours before the pain subsided into a persistent itch that lasted for five days. Lesson learned: I’d much rather be stung by a paper wasp, as their stings last for less than a day. 

As I type this, wasps are swirling outside my window: They’re making nests under our roof, preparing to overwinter. Was this just an unlucky summer for our family, or was there something bigger going on? Were these yellowjackets another plague, following the summer’s COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes?

A quick bit of online research turned up a Valley News article from June that proclaimed this a “bumper year” for wasps and bees in Vermont due to the mild winter. In the article, beekeepers and pest controllers alike said they hadn’t seen anything like this; the Fish and Wildlife Department considered it “good news,” because wasps and bees are pollinators, which have been in peril in recent years. 

That is good news, I suppose, and gives me a better perspective on the combined seven stings our family suffered this summer. Still, if the coming winter is a mild one, I’m stocking up on Windex. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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