The Battle of the Paper Wasps


One morning when J. was writing outside on his device, it was brought to his attention that a society of paper wasps was building a nest above the front door of the condo. Sure enough, the wasps had constructed a three-inch tall nest, with open hexagons ready for new larvae. It was suggested that J. should do something about this. J. agreed that a nest of wasps above the front door was not a desirable outcome. As yet, the nest was small. Best to deal with it immediately. J. grabbed a handy broom.

J. had never attacked a wasp nest before, so he did not know quite what to expect. However, there appeared to be only three workers at the moment, and the nest was small. He took a whack at it with the broom. The paper nest fell into a pot of tomatoes. But at the same time, an angry host of perhaps 10 wasps emerged, heading in J.’s direction. J. stepped back, a bit panicked, and stumbled, falling backwards onto a pot from which sprouted a jade plant. The pot shattered, as did J.’s dignity. The wasps, however, were confused and did not attack.

The Wasps Return

J. thought that the job had been done, albeit somewhat clumsily, and returned to writing. However, when when he returned to the scene of the attack, he found that the wasps had started over and were building, little by little, a new structure. This time, he turned on the water and squirted them with the garden hose, trying to wash away whatever nest material had been deposited. This went on for three days. Sometimes the wasps tried moving to a new location about a foot away, but they kept at it. Clearly paper wasps are persistent. One might even say single-minded.

If J. had thought about it, he would have taken pictures of the various stages of the fight. As it is, he can only provide the blank eaves as they existed before and after the battle. The final encounter was decisive and ended in unintentional tragedy for this group of wasps.

Wasps and Bees

J. has nothing against wasps, though they do sting. He was merely trying to discourage them from building a nest in an inconvenient place that would cause further conflict. J. also has nothing against bees. Bees used to invade a previous house once a year, swarming into the oven vent on the roof, with some managing to enter the kitchen through a gap in the filter. Those who entered the house gathered at the kitchen window trying to get out. J. removed the screen and opened the window so they could escape. He also burned incense and turned on the fan in the oven hood to discourage them from making a hive in the vent. One year, he even fed the kitchen bees sugar water because they seemed too tired to fly away. They accepted it gratefully.

J. once rode his bike through a swarm of bees. He turned a corner and there they were. There was no time to stop so J. froze and coasted through. He fully expected to get stung several times. Bees bounced off his helmet, his glasses, and his chest. However, the bees did not interpret passing through as a hostile action. They did not sting. J. thought that this might have been because he passed through the tail end of the swarm, nowhere near the queen. These bees were focused on following the queen.

Spiders, Good and Evil

So, J. is sorry about the outcome of the battle with the wasps. This is what happened. The wasps, after pausing for a day, had resumed their nest building in the original place. J. used the hose again. This time, however, the wasps fell into a spider web stretched between the wall and a pot of basil, the tangled, crazy web of a black widow.

J. has read that spiders offload some cognition into their webs, just as humans offload thinking into written texts. If this is true, black widows must have mad minds. Their webs are strong, sticky, and randomly asymmetrical. Compare this sort of web to that produced by orb weavers, the spiders that make the circular, symmetrical, and beautifully flat webs that one sometimes sees in the morning, shining with dew.

Orb weavers were common at J.’s previous house. One morning, he came out in the back yard to read and moved a chair that happened to have an anchor line from an orb weaver’s web attached to it. The anchor line broke and the wind folded the web in half. J. was sorry. It has been a beautiful thing. He sat down to read. A few minutes later, the spider, a very large one, came down on a single strand of web and positioned itself right at J’s eye level. The spider and J. looked at each other for a long moment. Then the spider climbed back up to the ruined web. Something had been communicated.

The Outcome

So J. really has nothing against spiders either. But J. does not like black widows. Black widows give J. the creeps. J. felt really bad that he had delivered several innocent wasps to the fangs of such a spider. The pattern of the web made the nature of its owner clear, but as the wasps struggled to free themselves, the spider, red hourglass clearly visible, made an appearance, clearly much excited by the new bounty in her trap. J. felt responsible for this unwanted outcome, but could think of no good remedy. The wasps, magnificent creatures really, could not free themselves. The spider danced around one of them, looking for a way to get in a paralyzing bite. It was awful.

J. grabbed the broom and killed them all.

Human intervention in the natural world often produces cascading unintended consequences. But the wasps have finally given up the idea of building a nest above J.s front door. There is that.