Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nasty little creatures, but you can't help admiring them

I detest wasps, ugly, sinister, menacing creatures that they are. I daresay they serve some ecological purpose but I’m buggered if I know what. However my aversion doesn’t stop me from having a grudging respect for their cleverness and industry.

Our house is on a large section with lots of trees, shrubs and undergrowth, and we’ve learned to be alert in late summer/early autumn for evidence of wasp nests. In the years we’ve been here we’ve eradicated at least five.

Sure enough, a couple of days ago we observed a constant procession of wasps coming and going from beneath a clump of toetoe. Closer inspection revealed they had created a tunnel through layers of toetoe to what I presume was a hole in the ground leading to their subterranean nest.

This is what impresses me about wasps. First, they had scouted out this location and selected it as fit for purpose (excuse the jargon – I can’t help myself). Then they had proceeded to clear a flight path to the entrance of the nest. This they had done by chewing through countless stalks of tough, sharp-edged toetoe to create an opening as tidily symmetrical as the portal of the Seatoun Tunnel.

Consider the degree of sophistication necessary to achieve this. Clearly, wasp society is sufficiently well organised for them to be able to communicate with each other, agree on the job to be done (and where), then set to work on the construction. And all with no resource consents.

I didn’t dare get close enough to spot the entry to the actual nest, but no doubt that was a piece of clever excavation too. Wasp nests can apparently accommodate as many as 5000 insects, and judging by the nonstop traffic to and from the opening in the toetoe, this was a good-sized one.

We dealt with it as we’ve dealt with them before. This meant waiting till dark (and I mean dark, because wasps remain active as long as there’s any light), then approaching the nest with a torch (its lens covered with a red cloth, since wasps apparently can’t detect red) and a container of carbaryl. Just to be on the safe side, I wore gloves and covered my head with a mesh head net that I bought years ago in the Aussie Outback to keep the flies off (one of the best few dollars I ever spent). I wasn’t taking any chances: according to the Landcare Research website, if you shine the torch too long on the entrance to the nest, red filter or no red filter, wasps are likely to fly up the beam and sting you.

Not being able to see far enough into the opening to detect the nest entrance, I spread carbaryl liberally everywhere I could in the hope that wasps arriving back at the nest next day after foraging would carry the insecticide inside with them and poison the whole colony.

Morning came, and the heavy aerial traffic had resumed. Wasps were coming and going at the rate of one every couple of seconds. But after an hour or so, we could see telltale evidence that the carbaryl was taking effect. Rather than entering the nest, returning wasps would buzz around the opening in an agitated fashion before heading off somewhere else.

Here again, one assumes a sophisticated level of communication and organisation. The wasps seemed to be telling each other something wasn’t right and possibly even agreeing on a rendezvous point somewhere else.

By mid-morning the coming and going had all but ceased. Mission accomplished. I take no pleasure in killing things but it’s hard to feel sorry for these nasty little predators, notwithstanding their cleverness.

It won’t have been a 100 percent kill. The survivors will be regrouping somewhere even as I write this. I just hope it’s on some other mug’s section and not mine.

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