The Wasps Came In To Die
By Alyssa Roggow
Broadcast 10.18 & 10.21.2023
The wasps came in to die. First one, buzzing and bumping into the living room window, who was soon joined by a few sisters. Within an hour, there were more than 40 sinisterly striped yellow jackets (Vespula alascensis) zooming from one window to another in pursuit of light, and I was outnumbered.
We’d arrived at the house together, the wasps and I. In the smoky haze of early August, they set up shop in a homey crack in the exterior wooden siding while I unloaded a U-Haul and arranged the scrappy furniture that had seen one too many college apartments. Within a day, we’d come to the understanding that the west side of the house was theirs. Until this late September morning, bright but cold, the inside of the house was mine.
I left the wasps to their own devices. I’d read somewhere that when a yellow jacket is injured, it releases a pheromone to summon other yellow jackets to its aid, and I didn’t want to provoke a swarm in my own living room. In the lengthening twilight of autumn, I spent evenings in the half-dark, with a lamp on in the living room to draw the wasps while I worked in the narrow beam of light that leaked into the kitchen. The wasps’ angry buzz filled the small house as they went from window to window to lamp and back, leaving trails of a clear, goopy substance wherever they landed.
After a few days of furious Googling, I learned that yellow jackets abandon their nests every year. In autumn, a pregnant queen ventures forth to find a safe place to overwinter, and in the spring she builds a small hive and raises the year’s first brood of workers. Throughout the summer, the hive grows in numbers as adult yellow jackets eat sugary, carbohydrate-laden foods like plant nectar and fruits (and human-made sweets, hence their reputation for ruining picnics). Unlike adults, yellow jacket larvae require protein-rich foods such as aphids and grubs. Because of this, adult workers also forage for insects and other proteins, like human-prepared meats and fish (more ruined picnics). When the queen finally leaves the nest, her minions, leaderless, wander off in search of food. Unfortunately for them, food sources are diminishing in the cooler, shorter days, and they will not survive the winter.
The wasps in my living room weren’t finding much in the way of food, either, and after a few days they began to weaken noticeably. The buzz from the living room was thinner; the yellow jackets were spending less time in the air. A few of them had begun to fall to the ground, and for some reason they were drawn to rugs. The wasps who were too weak to fly crawled in endless circles on the rugs. Not the carpet, not the linoleum—only the rugs.
I thought of killing them then, and probably could have done it without being stung, but a few days of accommodating their presence had stirred my sympathy. Their aimless, repetitive motions were anything but threatening, and in fact seemed darkly metaphorical of the human hordes. I kept the lights off and let them find a natural end.
Nearly two weeks after the yellow jackets appeared, I woke to find the first carcass on the living room rug, striped and inert as a discarded candy. The rest went quickly, and within a few days, the weak, intermittent buzzing was silent. When the wasps first came into my house, I was affronted and frightened and annoyed, and I knew nothing of their nesting habits or seasonal cycles. By the end of their stay, I was both humbled by the slow deaths of many creatures and newly attuned to the seasonal changes happening around me.
With autumn upon us once again, here and now, yellow jacket workers are zooming about on a doomed hunt for sustenance. It has been a few years since the yellow jackets found their way into my home, but every now and then a carcass appears in some long-uncleaned corner of the house. Each time, the yellow stripes are less vibrant and the exoskeleton more fragile, and each time I experience an instinctive shudder of revulsion. But as I sweep it up and toss it outside, the small body becomes once again a potent reminder of the ever-unfolding cycle of life and the seasons that mark its passing.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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