Friday, May 21, 2010

What's The Buzz?

There are hornets in my compost bin and a slightly itchy, bump on the back of my neck. The two happenings are connected.
My compost container is of the open variety. I purchased it from the Gardens Alive! Catalog over ten years ago. It consists of what is essentially a two foot high, six level, hexagonal wooden corral held together at the corners by metal rods that slide through holes in the wood and into the ground. One of the rods has a handle and is easily removed to create a gate at the front, through which the dark brown decayed organic material can be removed.

The wood has weathered well over the years. And the whole setup has an earthly-looking attractiveness that perfectly complements its raison d'etre. It is nestled under a pine tree and several low-lying bushes on the perimeter of our property -- out of the spotlight, in the shadows, where it can work its mysterious bio-chemical transformations in unhurried solitude.

Over the years I have removed and carted countless piles of rich humus across my property and into our various gardens.

This time, because I only needed a small amount, I left the enclosure intact and dug down into the pile after flicking aside the latest, as yet unprocessed, additions -- the broccoli and cauliflower castoffs from the previous night.

I was shoveling the humus into an empty bag formerly containing some topsoil that had previously been dumped onto my intended area of planting. I had already filled and emptied the container once. Since I had to hold the plastic sack with my left hand and finesse it open with the compost-laden shovel in my right one, I was paying less than one hundred percent attention to the area I where I was digging.

When I went back to take a second bagful I saw one of the Yellow Jackets hovering around the indentation I had just made. Not thinking much about it I plunged the blade of the spade back into the fertilizer pile and removed my next shovelful. When I returned for another round I noticed two of the potentially troublesome insects. Then three. Then four.

Just as I decided to leave the area, one of the quartet decided to drive me away. I sprinted from the corner of the yard out into the open spaces, spinning and flapping my hands and arms spasmodically while twisting and ducking my head. "S***! S***! S***!" I yelled to Mars who was nearby potting some annuals.

I felt what I thought was a slight sting on my upper neck, and Mars said, somewhat excitedly, that a bee had landed on me just behind my ear. By the time I got over to her for assistance my attacker had fled.

I sidled back to retrieve the abandoned bag of compost and, without incident, nabbed it and carted it over to my planting area -- where I carefully dumped it out, along with several attack-oriented, floating-on-air guests.

Reluctantly, since this had started out as an organic project, I found my can of Wasp and Hornet killer and sprayed around the spot in which I was still determined to install some groundcover.

After several minutes all seemed to be quiet so I completed my compost-topsoil mixing and placed the four Lambium in the new homes. The scent of chemical insecticide hovered over the newly established flowerbed.

I wondered if the insecticide would affect plants in the same lethal way that it seemed to handle the hornets. I will know if it didn't -- they will grow normally. On the other hand, if the plants die I can't be certain why. Over the years I have killed more than my share of vegetation -- most of the time without any chemical assistance. Or, worst case, what is deadly for bugs could turn out to be beneficial, or even empowering, for buds. They could flourish and take over the entire yard -- and possibly the world.

There are no apparent side effects from the bite on my neck. The compost bin on the other hand is a lost cause -- at least for this season. The nest undoubtedly lies somewhere beneath the benign, all-natural surface of the decomposing material.

I have no intention of nuking the hornet house (I really do not like the smell of napalm in the morning) -- or of removing (could I survive a thousand stings?)

After consulting the unknown and uncredentialed experts on the World Wide Web, my plan is to wrap the whole enclosure tightly in plastic from now until next planting season. Then open it up and hope for the best.

Or, better yet, just bag the whole thing (literally and figuratively), and get a new enclosed, compost digester -- probably the kind with a rotating drum. Then I can be the one to make the hornets spin around in circles, instead of vice-versa.

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