Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hornets: Buzz Off, Bob

The nest I didn't see

Seasonal temperature, low humidity, slight breeze—what a delightful gardening day last Wednesday was. One of my goals: uproot the oak seedlings growing up through an azalea where a squirrel had buried acorns.

I grasped one of the seedlings and pulled it straight up, and it came out easily, roots and all. The second seedling uprooted just as easily.

The third seedling, however, was two years old. In fact, I had cut it to the ground with my hand pruners last year, and it had sent up three 18-inch sprouts this spring. I could see that I couldn’t get a good grasp on the base of the seedling from where I was, so I got up and walked around the azalea and went to work again.

My pulling revealed the oak seedling was well rooted. One of its shoots came off at the plant base. I started pulling up harder and my effort was shaking the adjacent azalea branches. I was concentrating on pulling up the stubborn oak seedling and not paying attention to what was happening around me.

Suddenly I heard buzzing as dive bombers attacked the enemy—me. One stung me on my right forearm—I was wearing only a tee-shirt on the perfect spring day. Another stung me on the top of my left hand and another on one of my fingers. Ouch—they hurt!

In an instant, I retreated, swinging my arms to defend myself from the attackers. What were they? Yellow jackets? Hornets? Wasps?

I returned just before dark to reconnoiter. I discovered that when I tugged on the oak seedling, it shook an azalea branch on which a baseball-size paper nest was attached—a hornet nest. The defenders were on guard when I peeked at their nest—resting on the sides and bottom of the nest, like fighter jets lined up on a carrier deck.

It took little time to identify them in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects & Spiders: bald-faced hornets (Vespula maculata). “Black and white patterns on face, thorax, and abdomen…. Adult drinks nectar, fruit juices…. Larva feeds on insects”—or hapless gardener—“pre-chewed by adults. In spring, female chews wood to build small, pendant nests out of gray pulp, with doorway at the bottom…. Adults are extremely protective of the nest and will sting repeatedly if disturbed.”

Yes, “extremely protective … and will sting repeatedly if disturbed.”

What to do?

Leave the nest alone wasn’t an option—as I weed in that area—and it’s just three feet from where visitors walk on our front sidewalk?

Should I counter-attack at night—cutting off the azalea limb and letting the nest drop into a bucket of soapy water? No, branches criss-cross, and my cutting might cause a counter-counter-attack—and what if the nest bounced onto the ground and landed at my feet?

When I queried the Home & Garden Information center by email, they suggested I hire a certified beekeeper to remove the nest—a great, safe option, if I couldn’t really do it myself. The responder was quite adamant that I shouldn’t use a flashlight if I tried to do the job myself.

When I asked my brother, Jay, an entomologist, for his counsel, he too said to forget the flashlight and the bucket of soapy water. He suggested that I cover as much of my skin as possible and at twilight—when there was just enough natural light to see what I was doing—puff some insecticide into the entrance of the nest, and within a day or two, all the hornets would die as they came into contact with the dust. I had an old bag of Sevin dust. That should do the job.

Dressed & armed to kill
For the puffer, I found an old turkey baster with an age-split bulb that I repaired with some duct tape. For protection I put on two long-sleeved shirts, a full knitted face mask that I use when blowing snow and robbing banks, and my gardening jeans.

As the sun was setting in the west, I took my puffer and advanced toward the east. The nest was about 15 inches from the ground, so I had to kneel in order to have any chance of inserting the end of the puffer into the nest opening. As I carefully moved an azalea stem to get a better view, buzzing started, so I let go a puff of insecticide directly toward the nest.

And I ran about 10 feet. The hornets were on full alert, ready to fend off any intruder.

Courage, Bob, courage. I reloaded and replanned. I was going to puff above and toward the nest to try to preempt counter-attacks by the guards. Already there was less buzzing. After my second attack, I didn’t run as far. I reloaded and approached and peered in through the branches.

Small target: the entrance
Whitish power was visible on the top of the nest, and some of the guards were just sitting there—dusted. They didn’t seem ready to come after me. Quickly I upended the baster and pushed it up and into the opening at the bottom of the nest. Puff … puff. I retreated, reloaded, and repeated. Puff … puff.

For the next two days I took antihistamine tablets to help reduce the swelling around my wounds—and rubbed cortisone cream into the red, itching, swollen areas. About 48 hours after my attack on the nest, I returned to see if any of the hornets had survived. There were no hornets. I clipped the branch on which the nest was hanging—a souvenir of sorts.

Final score: Bob 1, Hornets 0.

And, Bob, please pay more attention to your surroundings while you’re enjoying your gardening chores on beautiful spring days.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, Sevin is very effective pesticide for wasps and hornets. I always find at least one ground dwelling yellow jackets nest during the summer and Sevin is my preferred solution.