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Please begin with an informative title:

I spent part of yesterday engaged in locating a yellow-jacket nest, in an overgrown courtyard. I'd been weeding it with a group of middle-school students, and two of them had gotten stung. After they left, I spent about an hour watching the pattern of the wasps, where they were flying. I cautiously trimmed back high grasses around a log, and would walk away for a few minutes when they started getting stirred up. Eventually I pushed the log over with a rake to reveal a beautiful paper hike the size of a softball, and an angry swarm of 100+ yellow-jackets.

I felt bad about having to take them out, but this was the wrong place for them. I felt that it was my responsibility, because I've participated over the last few years in converting this school courtyard from a barren desert of mulch into a rich native habitat, seething with life. We've tilled truckloads of compost into the clay soil, planted hundreds of native plants and trees, and imported rotting logs from other natural areas to colonize the area with ants and other insects and invertebrates. We have likely increased biodiversity in this courtyard by a factor of 10 or 100.

So it's my fault the wasps were there, and from their perspective, it was a fine place to be. In another scenario, we could have found a way to coexist, but not in a school. So while I flushed out this wasp nest with deep regret, it was also a very beautiful moment. Because I am enormously, amateurishly fascinated with Order Hymenoptera, "one of the largest orders of insects, comprising the sawflies, wasps, bees and ants. Over 130,000 species are recognized, with many more remaining to be described."


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For the purpose of this diary, I'm going to stick with wasps, but I welcome you to share your Last Most Beautiful experiences with any members of Order Hymenoptera, which I'm confident will outlast the human species, unless we manage to master both interstellar colonization and full-scale destruction of the Earth. Although even then we'd be bringing representative members of Hymenoptera with us in our interstellar seed-ships...

Stalking a yellow-jacket nest triggers a uniquely jittery alertness - I was twitchy for hours afterwards, focussed on small movements, and looking for patterns. The trick is to move calmly closer, while watching for signs that the colony is becoming aggressive. There are always a few guard wasps, but it takes a certain amount of disturbance before the majority of the hive transitions from happy summer harvest mode to seek and sting. I walked away from this encounter unstung, but had to do a few quick retreats. Yellow-jackets protect their treasure, their queen, their larvae, their beautifully constructed paper hive with an amazing intensity, can conjure up a seething attack pattern that's the localized equivalent of something between lightning and fire.

I love wasps because I'm terrified of them, they have a buzzing stinging volition that I'd be willing to surrender to, if ever they were to consider negotiation. Which they're not. I use wasps as a teaching tool on the topic of respect, when I'm working with youth in nature, have had some great teaching moments at picnics where I transition kids from being terrified of them, to feeding them by holding bits of food on their hands.

And I've had wonderful moments with wasps, from sitting on a log over a stream and realizing that there was a hive of hornets inhabittig the log right below me, to watching cicada-killers attack and dismember dragonflies by the side of a wetland, or harvest wood-pulp for their nest from lilac trees, to hanging in the lee of an island in a flooding river, watching a large wasp nest attached to a branch floating and bobbing in the waterswirl as the wasps continued wasping. I've run from stinging swarms, and watched hornets the size of my thumb crawl out of their tunnel that I'd unknowingly sat Buddha on top of.

I still don't know how they last the winters, but I delight in rich wasp-summers, when the conditions are right for them to build and scavenge in abundance, have watched close as mud-dauber wasps form perfect balls of clay beside wet pools for their nests. Where there are wasps, nature is rich, for they are prime scavengers, big eyes and cutter jaws, wise swarming sense like ants to the prize.

To Order Hymenoptera! Buzzing yellow brown white black stripes, electric stings, wings like blades, iridescent tarantula hawks chasing spiders, paralyzing their prey and flying them to their nest, for their young to feed and grow on. They learned to live from the dinosaurs, and then from us, and will live from whatever remains after we're gone.

And a last moment, from my youth, serving as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church I grew up in, during a hot drowsy DC summer sunday, the kind of day where sometimes people fainted, because back then the church didn't have AC. I got close a few times myself, and wondered whether it was the brink of a religious experience. But more likely I was just a combination of being intensely bored and intensely hot.

The service ran slow in the humid heat, in a mostly empty church where it didn't seem that anyone was paying attention, I remember watching the priest wage a half-concealed war with a wasp as he ran through the sacrament, stomping and slapping as a wasp buzzed around the wine. I mentioned it afterwards to a friend on the vestry, who grinned and told me that the Episcopal Church considered the wasp their mascot, or omen or whatever, which made the whole incident far more entertaining...

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Originally posted to erratic on Sat Aug 10, 2013 at 09:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science.

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