Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Not So Secret Life of Bees

I keep thinking that all of the hornets must be gone by now. Then I find a dead body lying feet up on the carpet or next to the latch on top of the lower window. Yesterday Mars found another one -- but only one. That is however way better than the body count that was piling up in our living room just one week ago.

This is the second major infestation of our house by members of the order Hymenoptera -- the third if you count the nest of ground hornets that took up residence just outside our family room door back when Nicole Marie, our beloved Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter, cohabited with us.

She of course discovered where they lived. Fortunately, with a spray can of the appropriate insecticide and a long handled shovel, I was able to eliminate them before they figured out where her dwelling was.

Because of our abundance of butterfly-seducing perennial plants we normally have quite a good supply of yellow and black nectar-suckers buzzing around our property -- only one of which has actually ever bothered either one of us. And to be accurate I bothered him by reaching barehanded into a tousle of ground ivy, within which the little buzzer was probably taking an unauthorized siesta, and coming up with a hand full of stinger.

I saw my assailant briefly as I angrily flicked his body, minus his stinger and attached stomach, onto the surrounding area of ground cover. Then, being home alone, I rushed into the house to ice my rapidly swelling palm. Fearing in the back of my mind the unknown dangers of anaphylactic shock I tried to page through my mind for other handy home remedies that I should apply before potentially losing consciousness. I vaguely recalled that certain kitchen spices could be used to, I guess, remove whatever poison there was -- but had no idea which ones. I thought perhaps MSG, but that might have been because I had a craving for Chinese stir-fry.

Anyway the swelling subsided, the pain never came, I had something else for lunch, and soon returned to the job of thinning my ground ivy, without further incident.

Several years ago, also in early autumn, we had our first real wasp invasion. We were having our kitchen remodeled so workers were traipsing around our house throughout the day when, since we were at work, the house would normally have been closed up tight. Nicole Marie was no longer with us. Towards the end of the week, around sunset when we came home, we noticed a few black and yellow wasps in our kitchen but didn't think much of it, attributing it to the comings and going of the carpenters, etc.

On Friday evening when we arrived we found a note from one of the men who had been working in the cellar saying something like there seemed to be "quite a few bees around here." There were in fact a few dead bodies around the kitchen area but we went downstairs to the basement where the work had been performed that day and were kind of stunned to find possibly one hundred or so corpses (all bees, no carpenters) -- but no live activity.

Then on Saturday afternoon we began to notice a steady influx of buzzing insects coming up our cellar stairs and heading directly for the nearest kitchen window. And there seemed to be a noticeable drone coming from the lower regions of our house. Clearly we had a problem that required outside help.

We looked in the yellow pages for Orkin or Terminex (or possibly both) -- nationally advertised "pest control experts" and the only names in that field that we were familiar with. We discovered that even in a situation such as ours (which I attempted to portray as being similar to the playground scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" but indoors with hornets) the big guys only work on weekdays. "Would you like to schedule an appointment for Tuesday?"

We went back to the yellow pages and called the first nearby name that we found --"A A Bon". A woman answered and said that she would get hold of someone who was "out on the truck". After I hung up I rushed off to our neighborhood Tru-Value Hardware to get enough ammo to hopefully enable us to hold our ground until the Cavalry arrived while Mars waited nervously for a return call. By the time I returned (probably fifteen minutes) the Insecticide Samurai guy had arrived, assessed the situation, shown Mars the point of entry, pointed out the "sentry" wasp that was aggressively guarding it, and now was in the process of donning his big white exterminator's costume. As he swaggered back from his truck I am certain that I heard him say to Mars (in what turned out to be a Tennessee accent), "Now don't you worry none, little lady."

The insect ingress spot turned out to be a less than perfectly sealed hole for an exhaust pipe in our cement cellar wall within which the insects had then built their nest. During the day, with the weather now becoming colder, the wasps were heading into the house in search of heat and then upstairs to our kitchen in search of light. The plan was to shoot some killing agent into the hole/nest and then spray the cellar with an organic smoke that would decimate them as they attempted to escape. As "A A Bon" got near the nest his white suit was engulfed by frustrated black and yellow stinging machines that he somehow removed before he came into the house to take care of the basement.

Within one half hour the battle was over. The next day we cleaned up the carnage and, following "A A Bon's' instructions, used a sprayable substance that hardened inside the opening to seal it up against future invasions.

Now, years later, we were under attack again -- except this time in our living room.

It began with a few sightings of slow moving wasps staggering along the frames and ledges of our north facing windows. Gradually the number increased and I employed an indoor insecticide that I had on hand in the areas where the invaders had been spotted. We went outside to look for the entry point but saw nothing, although based upon our earlier experience I suspected a hole that had been added to our cellar wall to accommodate a water utility meter-reading device that could be read remotely.

The next morning there were double-digit dead things on the floor and window casings. I looked outside and saw a swarm of yellow jackets hovering around what appeared to be a small opening between our chimney and our vinyl siding. Mars and I decided to spray heavy duty insecticide into the hole for a few days to see if we could quell the situation, and if that didn't work to place another call to "A A Bon".

That evening at dusk, when the wasps had quieted down for the day, I gingerly mounted our stepladder with my biochemical weaponry in hand, placed the nozzle as close as possible to the opening, and fired away.

By noon the next day the body count was up and, in some no doubt sick and demented way, we were feeling better about the whole situation. We repeated the same drill for the next four days with the same results, causing me to wonder if depressed insects were flocking to the area to act out their own version of "suicide by cop" or if hornet nests had bigger populations than most major U.S. cities.

We are now in week two of the "spray-by-night and vacuum-by-day" offensive. There are no signs of outside life around the chimney, but we still get the daily single digit cadaver count on our carpet. We plan to keep on spraying and in a couple of days we are going to seal up the hole from the outside -- and hope for the best.

As a former neighbor told me a while ago, once you become empty nesters you only really live in two rooms of your house. Fortunately for us the living room is not one of them.

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