I’ve Become The Weirdo Wasp Lady

I have a wasp nest.
I had a wasp nest.
A wasp nest hangs in a tree in my yard. If may or may not contain wasps.

I’ve been keeping my eye on this nest for several weeks. It’s the aerial home of a colony of bald-faced hornets (despite the name, a type of wasp).

When I first noticed the nest, I’ll admit I was concerned. It hangs about 10 or 12 feet off the ground, adjacent to the grassy (non-vegetable) portion of our yard. It looks a little like modern art and a little like someone stuck a grey ball of twisted cotton candy up on a branch of one of our katsura trees. If you can get past the whole “wasp nest” thing, it’s actually quite beautiful.

A little research on Wikipedia didn’t help my concerns:

[Bald-faced hornets] are more aggressive than both the wasps normally called yellowjackets and members of the Vespa genus, and it is not considered safe to approach the nest for observation purposes. The bald-faced hornet will aggressively attack with little provocation.

When you have two small children and you see a wasp nest, here’s a totally reasonable reaction: “Get that thing the hell out’my yard before one of those bastards stings my kids.”

When you are a fairly dedicated gardener and you see a wasp nest, here’s another totally reasonable reaction: “Ah, so that’s why I’ve had almost no pest problems in the garden this year. That’s why I haven’t had to spray Bt against cabbage worm. The wasps are eating my bad bugs.”

I watched the bald-faced hornets flying in and out of their nest. They were huge. They looked twice the size of a yellow-jacket. But I sure wasn’t getting “aggressively attacked with little provocation.” I kept a respectful distance and was able to observe them without problem.

I was torn about whether to remove the nest or leave it be, so two days ago I called my exterminator for an opinion. Now let me take a moment and clarify something: I am not some All Creatures Great And Small insect pacifist.

I have squished slugs without remorse, knowingly smothered aphids in soaps, dumped boiling water into ant colonies and called my exterminator on several occasions to deal with yellow-jacket and paper wasp nests built on my home. We’ve had to remove several nests started up under our eaves, and in one notable instance, a colony of yellow-jackets set up a sizable nest in one of the hollow wooden columns that flank the entrance to our front door. They violated the cardinal rule of real estate: location, location, location. I didn’t lose any sleep over paying a pro to kill every single one of those bastards.

But this nest was different. It was higher, not on the house but up in a tree across from our main garden area. And I was pretty sure these bald-faced hornets were performing some serious garden helper work.

On Monday my exterminator (about whom, really, I can’t say enough good things – is that weird?) talked through the pros and cons of nest removal with me. He suggested I go out, really watch where the wasps were flying and evaluate their flight pattern and the risk from the wasps defending their territory. He told me that the nest might be fine now, but as it got bigger, the territory the wasps would defend would get bigger too, and I should be very careful about that. He told me bald-faced hornets are agressive but he didn’t push me to kill the nest. He advised me to put “wasp nest observation” on my calendar as a repeating weekly event. He said that when they started threatening my nest, I needed to take action and I should call him.

And that’s where we left it. I was on nest observation duty. It was all very thoughtful and worked to balance the risk of animals who will sting – and hard – to defend their home with the benefit of garden pest reduction and a minimal-interference philosophy.

Nice theory.

Yesterday, the guys who mow my lawn showed up at my front door carrying a can of Wasp and Bee Spray. Not for the first time, I cursed myself for not knowing Spanish as they said, extremely helpfully, “watch out for stings!” in broken English.

They had sprayed the nest. They had assumed, as most people would, that I wouldn’t want a wasp nest a dozen feet in the air above where my kids might play. They hadn’t thought about evening spraying to avoid beneficial pollinators, or less toxic methods of removal. Nope, they had helpfully dispatched the nest for me with some hardware-store brand of poison designed to spray 15 feet in the air.

I’m sure my face fell. “Okay,” I acknowledged, as they pointed to the nest,”okay.” And then I confirmed: “You sprayed?”

These guys – hard working, diligent, giving me that value added service my yard care company is known for – nodded and smiled.

“Okay,” I said again. And then, “thanks.”

I think I was confused. I wasn’t angry yet, just sad. I was sure the nest was done – what was I going to do, yell at a couple of guys who were trying to help me out and were probably worried my kid was going to get stung while playing outside?

I closed the door. A few moments later, through the side windows, I saw them walk up to the nest and spray it. Foamy stuff coated the front of the nest and the surrounding leaves of the katsura. I thought they were spraying it again, to be sure, and my stomach clenched as I thought about all the honeybees and bumblebees that were out on that sunny, warm afternoon, getting exposed to some toxin carefully engineered to kill them and their kin quickly and on contact.

It only occurred to me several hours later that my yard guys had probably been asking for permission to spray the nest at the door and I had probably, inadvertently, given it.

Fucking misunderstanding.

Naturally, I had already freaked out on Facebook about this, and called up my yard service company and, rambling and sort of emotional, “clarified” my postion on pesticides, which is: please don’t.

I don’t know if the nest will survive the spray. I have seen some wasps moving around it since it was hit, and based on the time of day – afternoon – probably few were in the nest anyway when it was sprayed. And who knows – I may yet pay my exterminator to come and kill all the bald-faced hornets. But if I remove it, I want it removed carefully and in a way that will minimally impact the other insect life in and around my yard.

I feel like such an ass. I’m really upset over the spraying of a wasp nest I don’t even know if I want in my yard. I’ve become a weirdo wasp lady.

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Comments

  1. Sorry that happened, especially the misunderstanding.

    I must say though, beneficial or no, wasps have no right trespassing on my property. I expect those wasps were killing your other beneficial bugs also. No bees means hand pollination.

    That said, for two years I had a similar argument over a bumblebee nest. They're docile and entirely beneficial, but were nesting in the attic. Once I found out they abandon nests after a season, I reluctantly let them go and sealed it up in the winter. The next year however, they moved to a playset the kids sometimes used. Even a harder decision, but we were in the honeybee crisis so I left them as my only pollinators. Now I don't know where they're nesting but they're close. Yay!

    Wasps though, gone!

    Best of luck working through your wasp issue. Sucks to have efforts thwarted unknowingly.Sorry that happened, especially the misunderstanding.

    I must say though, beneficial or no, wasps have no right trespassing on my property. I expect those wasps were killing your other beneficial bugs also. No bees means hand pollination.

    That said, for two years I had a similar argument over a bumblebee nest. They're docile and entirely beneficial, but were nesting in the attic. Once I found out they abandon nests after a season, I reluctantly let them go and sealed it up in the winter. The next year however, they moved to a playset the kids sometimes used. Even a harder decision, but we were in the honeybee crisis so I left them as my only pollinators. Now I don't know where they're nesting but they're close. Yay!

    Wasps though, gone!

    Best of luck working through your wasp issue. Sucks to have efforts thwarted unknowingly.

  2. I love your blog you weirdo wasp lady! I love how you think through your actions. So many people don't. I'm sorry you didn't get to make the decision about the fate of your wasps.

  3. Sorry about your miscommunication problems, but don't make yourself sick over it.

    Just yesterday I found the new bald-faced hornet nest(didn't find last year's until early this spring). This is the second year they've been attacking me (no exaggeration) in the milk parlor. The storm had brought down part of the nest and I found it on the ground; looked up & there was the rest of it. Never would have found it if that piece wasn't on the ground. It will, however, be eliminated one day very soon in the evening. I'm all for the hornets eating flys around the barn, but there are times when I have to milk one-handed because the bastards are actively diveboming me.

    The red wasps and mud daubers I DO let live around the house (although not on the porch / near doors, etc.) because I've seen them polinate my flowers and since we've had a lackluster amount of honeybees the past few years, I figure we need those polinators, wasps or not. Been bit / stung by hornets & balf faced hornets (wasps) uncountable times, but never by a wasp.

  4. The nest is beautiful! But I have been stung by one of those in my lifetime, and it hurts like hell for days. I know you feel bad about it, and I would too, just like squishing those ugly green tomato worms that turn into something beautiful, but you would have regretted it if one of the kids got stung.

  5. Oh – that totally sucks about the miscommunication. I hate having decisions taken away from me and I completely get the wanting to have the nest removed in a much more eco friendly way (if that's the choice you were going to make). We have a yellow jacket problem at our place. They totally prey on our bees (they might have killed off the hive we had last year even). And the husband, while not allergic, has a really severe reaction to their stings. So naturally, he stands outside of their nest at the end of the driveway whacking them with a fly swatter as they leave their nest. *sigh.
    He wants the nest gone, but we're stumped as to what to use, since we can't get at it (it's between/behind some retaining wall bricks) and we don't want to use a spray that would be toxic to the bees and other insects.
    Anyway – sorry again. The nest itself is cool. And if you already don't have bees, I guess they'd be helpful to have around. Personally I prefer the predators that don't sting me – but you take what you can get. And they bring their own garden art. ;)

  6. Anonymous says:

    I see wasps like that all the time by my raspberries, but there is no nest on my property. They do seem to view the raspberry area as theirs, but have never ever been more aggressive than any yellow jacket, if they survive I think as long as you leave them alone they'll leave you be.
    –the shoreline fruit lady

  7. My first year for lavender, I was so thrilled; I had dreams of taking my daughter out to harvest. She'd help me bundle the fragrent gifts with rafia and we'd do crafts and pillows. In my excitment I mentioned my plans in broken spanish to my gardener who decided that I must be telling him it was time to trim. Three gorgous bushes full of flowering lavender, gone. I literally cried. Its taken several other incidents and each time, I think I've learned my lesson. Still the good out weighs the pain, usually. Sorry about the disappointment.

  8. I'm going to disagree with you, I think they HAD already sprayed it, so you (and them) didn't need to worry about being stung now. I think you saw them spray it again because they saw some head back to the nest or something. They probably sprayed it as soon as they got out of their truck rather than risk coming to the house past the nest just to tell you what they were going to do.

    I'd have been torn on what to do, too. They are beneficial and they make beautiful nests, but MAN, do they hurt when they tag you!

  9. Bummer. I wouldn't worry too much about being the weirdo wasp lady. When I was in 1st grade, I was the weirdo bee kid that once had a whole group of kids surrounding me wanting to squash a bee that I was protecting. They mostly wanted to squash it because I was protecting it. I was only protecting it because as soon as I'd taken an interest in it on the playground, every kid around had wanted to squash.

    I also spent a long, lonely morning at summer camp once watching a yellow jacket ground nest. I moved slowly closer and closer until I was laying down with my head right next to the nest and the yellow jackets had just accepted me as part of the scenery.

    It's always worth giving the benefit of the doubt, and it's always worth observing before taking action. Of course, it's also important to be able and willing to do whatever you need to do to quell a threat, but only once you know it's a threat.

  10. Yesterday I found a cantaloupe-sized hornet nest obscured in the leaves of a low-hanging viburnum shrub branch about three feet off the ground. I “found” it after a nice young couple purchased something from me from Craig’s List, and as they carried the furnitue out, they bumped into the viburnum, and she got stung 3 times. No big deal, she said. She turned down my offer of Benadryl.

    People say they’re aggressive, but that may be limited to bumping into them. I just mowed in that area the day before, and nothing happened. However, I am concerned about future incidents like this one. I live alone, and if it were just me, I’d just as soon let the nest remain until a hard frost in October. I have a large vegetable garden and no doubt they are helping to control insect pests.

    The nest, though, is right next tothe right side of my driveway, and I’m concerned about an FedEx delivery man who might exit on the right side, or perhaps a rare visitor. It’s somehwat unlikely, but there are still 3 months before a frost.

    I have done a lot of reading online and it seems just as risky to attempt spraying the hive, even at night. As a staunch environmentalist, I was prepared to dislike your post when I saw where you were going, but actually, I give you credit for thinking it through without jumping the gun and reflexively obliterating the nest as most people do.

    Perhaps my nest will have to go too. I’m really not sure at this point. One thing i read recommended spraying Murphy’s soap on the nest at night becus the heavy oil will keep the hornets from flying and you can then step on them as they fall to the ground. I liked that idea but then wondered how wise it was to get that close to the nest, compared to the 10 or 15-foot distance you can keep with one of those high power incecticide sprays. Also, I could see the soap clogging up a sprayer pretty quickly.

    Well, anyway. I liked your well-reasoned post. I would understand anyone with children deciding to get rid of the nest.

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  1. [...] that swarm the garden for a months or two in summer always make me do the happy dance, and even the wasps (they survived, by the way) have so far played [...]

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