The Wasp Apologia

An unknown to me species of wasp on Goldenrod.

In defense of the humble wasp, so hated and feared by most humans, I put forth the following argument: the wasp is better than the mosquito.

Every spring our old farmhouse is invaded by gentle brown paper wasps. They hibernate in the walls and roof through the winter, and a few become confused and make their way into the house, rather than outdoors, where they meant to emerge. I usually do kill them, because the children panic and make unappealing noises. But in the 20 years the family has been living here, there have been no cases of unprovoked brown paper wasp stings. We did have one summer when very aggressive Yellow Jackets came indoors and stung everyone at least once, so we kill those on sight.

As a scary sight, the yellow jacket is right up there for inducing screaming and running.

Wasps are interesting, intelligent (relative to an insect, mind you) little creatures. Most important to us, they are voracious insectivores. No doubt you were thinking that the wasp, like the honeybee, lived on nectar and pollen. While they do to some extent, as well as fruits and anything sweet they can find, small insects like mosquitoes form a large part of their diet.

Feared for their sting, most species won’t use it unless provoked by a swat. Our little brown invaders usually just fly into windows and stare disconsolately out at the unreachable fresh air. Last summer I picked berries in company with hungry little wasps that looked like tiny, fuzzy yellow jackets, and who moved aside with the gentle nudge of a fingertip. Generally, wasps will leave you alone if you leave them alone, and it can be argued that they are good to have around. Mosquitoes carry disease, wasps don’t.

A wasp on the fingertip of my cleaning glove.

I’m not attempting proper identification of my wasp species, partly because I can’t. There are so many species of wasps, and they interbreed prolifically, that it’s almost impossible to be certain. Here in New Hampshire, we have several common ones.

  • Yellow Jackets, the bully of the wasp world
  • Brown Paper Wasps, the gentle ones
  • Bald-Faced Hornets, the giant wasps
  • Spider-Killers, the most fearsome predator I’ve ever watched in action.

Spider-Killers are well worth observing if you are lucky enough to have them in your area. Gorgeous creatures, metallic blue-black and with a long wasp waist, they even look lethal. When you realize that they hunt, paralyze, and then feed the still-living spiders to their larvae, you will respect them as well. Watching them fly nape of the earth, looking for all the world like a military helicopter on maneuvers is a fun thing to do on a warm summer day.

This is a honeybee, not a wasp. Their venom is also different, and a bee dies after one sting.

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The Villain of the Piece

Patiently waiting for his lunch

Lunching at leisure on birdseed

Black bears may look fluffy and cuddly, but they are still wild animals. They can move much faster than you would think, and are amazingly powerful. The bear in the pictures is a second year cub that has been appearing regularly at my grandparent’s bird feeders since his mother brought him as a bouncing ball of black fluff. He showed up yesterday afternoon, casually knocked down the feeder, and lay down to lap up the high protein snack with his long pink tongue. We all stood on the deck and watched him eat.

My Dad has been keeping bees here in Sanbornton, with hives in New Hampton and elsewhere on occasion, for twenty years now. He’s lost a lot of hives to bears. A black bear will casually tear apart a hives for the honey and larvae inside it. We use various methods to keep the bears away from the hives. The recommended method in New Hampshire is to use electric fence, the mesh sort is best. Once the bear has zapped his or her nose, they will keep their distance. Dad also uses a bee house, a sturdy wooden shed. For hives in a fixed location this is ideal. The last method we’ve used I don’t recommend at all…

One morning bright and early Dad woke up to a ruckus in the bee yard. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his pistol and ammo, and ran toward it trying to load 38 slugs into a 44 revolver. That not working, he remembered what he’d been told that a bear will be intimidated if approached by a bigger bear, so he put his arms up in the air and ran toward the yearling bear yelling. He got close enough to plant a good solid kick in the bear’s backside, and then he says the bear “Ran away a little bit, then turned around and looked at me as if to say why’d you do that?”

I don’t think I need to tell anyone they should never approach a wild animal that closely, especially one as large and dangerous as a bear. But Dad gets called Bear-Kicker to this day and he admits rather sheepishly that he wasn’t quite awake and was mad about the bees, or he wouldn’t have done it.

A new colony of bees, sleepy and chilly in the morning.

These bees were not happy to be awakened so early in the morning, even if I was feeding them!

April Showers… April Flowers

The saying goes “April showers bring May flowers” and that might be true in some areas, and here in NH most people think that is true. But to my eyes, spring is blooming all around us now, in mid April. Our little Sanbornton farm has so many species of plants growing on just our 14 acres that although I have started a list a few times, I have yet to finish it. This year I want to keep a record of what blooms when, because it is important to plan when and where we plant, put bees, and stop tapping for maple sap, amongst other things.

This morning alone I counted three species of trees in bloom. I mentioned before that the pussy willows are budding out, and today I saw that one had gone into full catkins. Yesterday during a walk in the pasture, I showed my eldest daughter alder catkins and how to tap them against her fingers to see the grainy white pollen they are busy spreading in the April breezes. The aspens are in full bloom, something you can tell by the trees acquiring a fuzzy gray appearance to their crown.

Tree flowers are usually inconspicuous, but they are an important part of the spring awakening. Insects harvest nectar and pollen from them, and Dad’s bees will cover a red maple in full bloom with a cloud of happy buzzing as there isn’t much else for them to find this early. Even wind pollinators like the willow and alders serve as a source of the protein-rich pollen for his honeybees.

List of Blooms:

Alder

Maple

Aspen

Willow

Crocus

 

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