Tanya Schroeder 11:48 a.m., Dec. 12
I have a plant on my deck that I could not coax back to life. I watched it whither over the last two years, and attempts to resuscitate it with organic fertilizers and pep talks did no good, it finally succumbing to the elements and my black thumb. The plant, though still technically dead, has had new life breathed back into it.
You see, the day I finally reconciled myself to its death and the need for its eminent disposal, I noticed activity within the stiff branches and crispy leaves of my plant. Upon further inspection, I discovered the beginnings of what I initially thought to be a bee’s nest. It was in its infancy, with the queen working ferociously to build the small nest that would eventually house the larvae she would feed and protect and would grow into her colony.
I instinctively recoiled upon this initial inspection, my reaction being one I suppose most have when they discover something that has the potential to harm them residing a little too close for comfort. But I let my curiosity get the best of me, and watched with fascination as one of nature’s great displays of life unfolded before my eyes.
Over the course of the summer, as the tiny nest grew, the activity surrounding it did as well. The workers flew in and out all day, bringing food home to the larvae, which will hatch new queens, as well as reproductives and males. I begin to feel protective of this little nest, which got a little bigger everyday, and so I instructed my husband to leave it alone as well as anyone venturing onto the deck that may become alarmed and take a shovel or bat to the colony. I also did a little homework, looking up my buzzing friends on the internet, only to discover that what I was allowing to cultivate in my deceased plant was not a beehive, but a colony of yellow-jackets, which belong to the wasp family of insects.
I know what some are thinking. Are you nuts?!??! Keeping a yellow-jacket colony on your deck where you entertain people and your pets sleep? But I must share something with you. The yellow-jackets not only have never stung me, they have become quite calm in my presence. Initially, when I would get close to inspect them, the workers would swarm a bit and I would back off, being of a curious nature but not a stupid or arrogant one. I have a healthy respect for nature, and am aware of not only its ability to create profound beauty but also to inflict deadly consequences when one underestimates it. I had noticed that one or two of the workers had died, becoming ensnared in the surrounding spider webs that sometimes entombed their nest. I learned to take a long stick and gently clean away the spider webs (but never the spider nests, which co-existed quite peacefully alongside the wasps). Eventually they stopped flying about when I came near, and just continued to go about their business, me and my husband no longer being a threat to their existence. I understand my situation is different from some, and anyone with small children or rambunctious dogs should seek removal of nests if they are located in an area where they could be disturbed. Fortunately, I have neither of these concerns.
As the summer progressed, I took great delight in seeing my backyard explode with flowers and fruit for the first time in years. Some of this can most likely be attributed to the extremely mild summer we had and the proliferation of rain, but I like to think that there was another element that contributed to this lushness. While yellow-jackets are not prolific pollinators, “because they lack the pollen-carrying structures of bees, they can be minor pollinators when visiting flowers” (courtesy of Wikipedia). The wasps were busy all summer, racing from fig tree to flowering bushes to fruit trees, something we had never had before in our yard. Previous year’s attempts to coax flowers out of bushes and fruits from trees produced somewhat lackluster results. Our backyard resembles something of a jungle right now, and I give full credit where I believe credit to be due.
We had some sprinkler issues this summer, and I showed the person we use to repair our sprinklers and other landscape issues the colony. I was certain he was going to offer advice on how to get rid of it, so imagine my surprise when he told me “I have turned down work because people have asked me to destroy the nests. People have no idea how important these insects are to our survival”. He will get all of our business for as long as he is in this line of work. We went on to have a discussion about nature and our systematic destruction of it if we feel it is somehow not in sync with our needs or somehow gets in our way. That many feel the yellow-jackets are “pests” and not a crucial part of the delicate balance of life. We are their worst natural enemy.
You see, we could learn a lot from yellow-jackets. They have a collective goal, which is to work together to support the survival of the species. A hive is like its own little world. Could you imagine if the hundred or so yellow-jackets could not agree on a religion and started waging war against each other? What if some of the yellow-jackets did not like the way some other yellow-jackets’ stripes were colored and committed acts of violence on them? What if some of the yellow-jackets came from a different country and the other yellow-jackets refused to allow them to work? What if one of the workers, who does not reproduce anyway, not that it matters, liked a yellow-jacket of the same sex and the other yellow-jackets kicked it out? You know what would happen? The queens would die. The workers would die. The reproductives would die. The nest would die. Ultimately, the species would die.
The nest never got very big and is still active. I just checked on it and the workers are coming out of hiding after the rains, wiping themselves off and flying about. I have covered up the plant and nest with a plastic deck chair to protect it from the rain, but I know that the end is near. The workers have slowed down, their task being almost complete. The nest will eventually become dormant, along with the workers. The queens will go on to “winterize” and build new nests elsewhere. I am saddened now as I see the little colony in the autumn of its life, but I am extremely happy to have witnessed this miracle of nature and learn a little something along the way. I also will keep my old dead plant, because I’ve enjoyed hosting the yellow-jackets, and I hope they or maybe a new colony will know that they can always call my deck home.