LOCAL VIEW —Yellow Jackets—

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Of all the things that spoil the beauty of nature, I think hornets are the worst, especially when their nests aren’t up in a tree where you can see them, but down in some hole on the ground that a small child can step on without seeing.  Then they swarm out and attack the innocent.

 

This summer has been especially bad. In the first nine years of running a Childcare I didn’t have a single bee-sting on any hike, and there were only three other episodes where other members of the staff ever saw children stung. This summer? I’ve been through six separate episodes. I’m actually feeling a bit rattled by it all.

The first episode involved a girl reaching into a blueberry bush to pick a berry, and bumping a bald-faced hornet’s nest.

 

Fortunately the nest was still small, but three girls got stung, two three times and one twice. One moment the scene was idyllic, and the next one girl was screaming.  I moved her swiftly away, but the hornets followed, and then a second girl began screaming, and then a third. I slapped the bugs off their clothing, but two of the eight-year-old girls continued screaming, on and on and on, for some fifteen minutes, despite my attempting to treat them with an anti-sting ointment in the first-aid kit (which I will never again vouch-for in any advertisement).  That experience exhausted me, though we did return to pick berries in the same place a week later, as I had a sort of you-must-get-back-on-the-horse-that-threw-you attitude. The girls did learn that once a nest was located, it could be avoided, and one doesn’t need to quit picking blueberries forever.

One of the most annoying aspects of the experience was a total lack of compassion on the part of the young boys in the group, who took a sort of contemptuous and sneering attitude towards all the screaming, even laughing at the girls. That all changed a week later when they kicked a nest at ankle level, as we moved Indian-file through a swamp. Another member of the staff could hear the screaming a half mile away. Seven out of eight boys got stung.

I think the collective screaming was more frightening than the actual stings; (in fact I could find no actual sting on one of the boys who screamed loudest; I include him among the stung, out of courtesy.) The screaming was so bad I had to resist the impulse to scream myself, though what I would have screamed was, “Shut the f— up!”  It was a hysteria that fed upon itself, and seemed a sort of proof we are raising men who are sensitive, and who are not male, chauvinist pigs.

To be honest, I think I would have preferred pigs, though there are few animals that squeal louder at the slightest offence. The boys squealed louder than pigs, and I found myself comparing them to the boys I hung out with when young, who were stoic by age five, and took a definite pride in not whimpering when stung by a bee.

One of the boys complicated matters by simply running in place on the nest, blocking the route of escape on the narrow trail. I had to go back and pull him forward, as he seemed to lack the instinct which most have, to run like hell. Then I pulled the boys behind him ahead, shouting “Go! Go! Go!” like a sergeant sending soldiers into battle, but when I turned I realized they only ran a short distance and then turned to look back at me, all screaming, though the hornets were flying all around them. I rushed them away,  slapping the hornets from their hair and shoulders and legs, and somehow remaining un-stung myself.  One lone boy somehow calmly walked through the entire experience without a sting, and he was looking about owlishly at the others.

What to do? Especially when the boys, (aged five to nine), wouldn’t stop screaming? I simply spoke in a very calm voice, eventually pausing to dab wet baking soda on the stings, once we were away from the swarming hornets and I’d located the final few wasps that had crawled up their sleeves. I explained the stinging sensation would slowly fade, and that the worst was over, and the best thing was to be calm and head back for some ice-cubes. I attempted to get them interested in who got the most stings, as a sort of competition, and attempted to interested them in being “toughest” by being the first to stop screaming. (This only worked on one older boy, who immediately became stoic.) The boy who ran in place on the nest got ten stings, and he, (perhaps due to shock), was also quick to become silent, but that worried me a little. I feared he might be manifesting an allergy, though none had an official allergy on their medical forms.

Due to the wonder of cell-phones I was able to contact my wife who contacted parents, and I was impressed by how calmly the parents responded. (But then, they couldn’t hear all the screaming). They generally felt that stings were part of country living, and their children were not likely scarred for life. Two of the mothers of the younger boys said they’d drop by to reassure their sons, but no parent cursed my ineptitude as a trail-guide and protector. The parents seemed to take it in stride, but I found the experience unnerving.  Try spending twenty minutes with screaming children, doing your best but only gradually subduing the uproar to whimpering, and you will understand how I felt.

My ego was basically ruptured.  I like to think I introduce the children to the beauty of nature, but there is nothing very beautiful about angry hornets, unless you are watching from very far away and have no heart for children. Then, I suppose, if you are a rabid environmentalist, you can marvel over the wonder of insects. I did my best to muster some of that stouthearted (or is it stone-hearted) objectivity during the following week, stressing that it was not a survival-skill to run in place, and that the correct response to hornets was to run like hell the dickens. I also became positively neurotic when it came to scrutinizing paths for any sign of ground-hornet nests.

It did no good. Within a week my wife was watching a group of smaller children play by “Lightning Rock”, where they always played, when one child began screaming. Yellow Jackets had colonized a chipmunk burrow under an outcropping. If we then tended to stay back at the playground I think it is understandable, but then children were stung in the playground. In a sort of environmentally unfriendly mood I declared war on hornets, and sprayed the fuck dickens of the two nests I located. Unfortunately the spray was in fact environmentally friendly, (and so quick to biodegrade that it biodegrades in the can), so drenching both of the yellow jacket nests merely stunned them.

Also the children stung in the playground described baldfaced hornets, and the nest I sprayed was yellow jackets. I had the uneasy feeling a nest was lurking, undiscovered. I even walked around the entire playground, kicking the fence, but couldn’t rouse the bald-faced hornets. The way to rouse them was to shake a certain post.

And so it came to pass the children were playing a game of “Shark-Minnow” in the playground, running from side to side, from fence post to fence post, when a child rammed the  certain, hornet-triggering post, and the all-too-familiar screams began.

However, for all the failures of my Childcare this past summer, one thing the children have learned is to run like fucking hell the dickens. The only child stung initially was the poor boy who suffered ten stings in the swamp. He’s had a rough summer, and has a stilted idea of the beauty of nature.

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However one very good student, a five-year-old who suffered seven stings in the swamp, ran correctly to the far corner of the playground, which happened to be the location of the yellow jacket nest I had sprayed with the environmentally friendly spray, and the yellow jackets stung him there. He became understandably neurotic . So did I. I went and bought the most environmentally unfriendly stuff I could find, and sprayed both nests, and the nest out at Lightning Rock (which was also still alive).

Then I took the kids to the spayed nests, where the corpses of dead hornets littered the entrances, and we looked at our dead fellow creatures and rejoiced in a distinctly environmentally unfriendly matter. The kids seemed to like it that, concerning hornets, I was madder-than-a-hornet, and put them first.

I figure I can be environmentally friendly when the environment is friendly back, but there is a time to be environmentally unfriendly, and that is when the environment is unfriendly to innocent children.

Usually by October the first freeze puts the hornet problem to rest, but this year the yellow jackets won’t die. (Before you blame “Global Warming” I should remind you we had snow in the mountains and a slight touch of frost in late August, and I then quoted old-timers and said, “Squaw Winter will bring Indian Summer”, and it is one of my few weather forecasts that have proved correct. The tomatoes and peppers and summer squash still flourish in the garden (except a few nipped by August frost), but the down side is that yellow jackets also still flourish.

They are particularly annoying because for some reason they develop an appetite for fruit, and can annoy you when apple-picking. My youngest son was bringing an apple to his mouth for a second bite, when a yellow jacket zipped down and landed on the fruit even as he raised it to his mouth, and stung him on the lip even as he bit.

If that doesn’t make you hate them, like we hate the serpent in the Garden of Eden, then picture me with a small group of three-and-four-year-old children. We are merely enjoying the fact that when leaves thin on the trees enough light is allowed down to turn stone walls green, as a microscopic moss grows.

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We had no aim to bother yellow jackets, and left promptly when they said we were bothering them, but they would not accept “excuse me”. They pursued.  They were mean to the innocent.

 

Two little girls got three stings, one got two, and a little boy got one, however the only redeeming thing was that, after amazingly going through the entire summer without a single sting, I got twelve. I was simply too busy killing the yellow-jackets as they landed on the children, pinching them with both my left hand and my right, to bother protecting myself. I think I killed roughly fifty, as we hurried away. I got stung on the back of both hands and the back of my neck, and at a hole in my jeans.

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Oddly, the small children were far braver than their older peers, and were busily gathering beechnuts in thirty minutes, despite the traumatic experience they’d  just undergone.

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Another cool thing, (which seems a reward for my heroism, protecting these innocents), is that my wrinkled old hands didn’t have a single wrinkle this morning. (I’ve also been told my arthritis will be lessened, because stings are an antidote.)

However a more difficult-to-understand reward of getting out into the hornets, is a better understanding of “Nature”. The “beauty of nature” isn’t some prissy idea where there are no hornets. Nature is full of rough stuff. Besides wasps and hornets, there are mosquitoes and black flies and deer flies and horse flies and green-eyed flies. There are thistles and thorns and briers and burrs and nettles and poison ivy and oak and sumac. (Some feel this isn’t enough, and we should reintroduce wolves to New England.)

Even while wading in a pond, as you note the whirligigs atop the water, you notice another bug that rows about with legs like the oars of a boat. At first it seems this bug sometimes rows about on its belly and other times on its back. Actually it is two different bugs, the “Water-Boatsman” and the “Backswimmer.” The former eats algae and is harmless, and the latter eats the former and can give you a painful bit, like a horsefly.

 

Does knowing the creature to the right can bite decrease your wonder, or increase it?

In like manner, my Childcare advertises we will increase children’s wonder, but now parents are redefining wonder. “I wonder if I’ll be sting today?” And I confess my hikes do expose children to suffering. “Communing with nature” is, to a degree, a sort of child abuse. But what is the alternative? To bubble-wrap childhood?  Is that not an obstacle in the way of wonder?

I don’t know why God made nature the way He made it. To me, hornets seem a bad idea. However nature is what it is. It is best we include the bitter with the sweet. For one thing, it is more honest than some insipid fairy-tale concept of nature, and for another thing, children seem to understand it and appreciate it better than their elders.

Oh Lord, why’d you create stinging hornets?
I want to show children nature’s Your art.
My paper states You’re love, but you’ve torn it
With bees whose sharp tails make poor children smart.
How smart am I? When cruel hornets sting
And rattlesnakes hiss and thick mosquitoes
Spread malaria? Do I know anything
When nature’s all thorns, and never a rose?

I turn to children to see what they think
And it seems they don’t mind; they just accept
The outdoors as better than jail, and wink
At the pains. Like African springbok they’ve leapt
Over lions, accepting Your life’s gift
Which, after Eden’s fall, leads too uplift.

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