Paper wasps in the mailbox might seem a potent metaphor for a writer: you never do know what you will find when you go out to collect the daily mail. Often enough, alas, something that stings. But sometimes the wasps that arrive aren’t figures of speech; sometimes they really are industrious insects, just minding their business in a place where we don’t want them.
One day not long ago we received a note with our mail from the mail carrier asking us please to remove the paper wasp nest that had suddenly appeared on the ceiling of the inside of the mailbox. In the past when this happened, we waited until night, sealed all of the openings in the mailbox and then bombed the nest with insecticide.
But conscious of the rate at which pesticides have been destroying insect populations these days, we decided to consult with a friend in British Columbia who had been a beekeeper for many years. He suggested removing the nest at night; if it was a small nest, he said, just grab it with a bag and dispose of it.
The nest was indeed small but I forgot to remove it once it got dark, having gotten busy making currant jam after supper. Come morning, however, we realized we wouldn’t get any mail if we didn’t get the nest out of the mailbox. What to do? I peered inside the box and didn’t see any wasps flying around; emboldened by our friend Don’s advice, I thought, I can do this!
I decided on a somewhat different course than Don counseled; I was curious and wanted to be able to see the wasps, so I got a large jar with a lid (one of those giant Costco nut jars), put on a hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved leather fire gloves, and went out to the mailbox. I opened it up, stuck the mouth of the jar over the nest and scraped sideways. The nest pulled away and dropped into the jar. A few wasps sleepily stirred from the nest.
Holding the mouth of the jar away from myself, I slapped on the lid and walked quite a distance away to a wooded area at the edge of the pond, then set the jar down, lid off, sideways in the grass. The wasps buzzed around frantically as I walked–perhaps twenty of them crawled out of the nest and flew around inside the jar. As soon as I set the jar down, they began to figure out how to get out, so I left the jar there.
I went back to the mailbox, stuffed an old cotton gardening glove in the opening they had used to get in and out, and watched for a bit as a few wasps buzzed around, trying to figure out how to get back into the box. Then I opened it up, let out the two wasps still trapped in there, and cleaned the interior of their debris.
I was feeling happy that I didn’t have to use toxins or kill the wasps. Surprise was the key element, and as Don had suggested, the wasps were not at all aggressive, just stunned.
But then later, when I went back to check the box, there they were; they’d figured out how to get around the convolutions of the glove and into the mailbox.
I was dismayed, but decided to wait and think a bit before I acted. Pesticide couldn’t be the answer.
On a walk that afternoon, I remembered the opening chapter of David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous, where, while residing in Indonesia, he learns a whole new way of being and living with insects. To get ants to leave the house, for example, they are not driven off; instead, they are invited elsewhere by offerings of rice in leaves left at the four exterior corners of the building. I began to wonder if I could do–or could have done–something similar with the wasps. How might I invite them away to a better place? Where might I invite them?
I had not yet researched a solution to this conundrum the next day when I realized, upon checking the mailbox, that it was empty of wasps. I covered the hole through which they’d entered in plastic, and went on to do other things, forgetting all about my good intentions.
Building a better wasp house
The wasps haven’t come back, but in the meantime, I have done a bit more homework for I am sure we’ll encounter those wasps somewhere else, even if most other places (a remote corner of the kayak shed, for example,) are places where they may stay, unlike the mailbox into which we or the wasp-allergic mail carrier must reach.
It turns out that paper wasps build their water-resistant nests from wood and plant fibre mixed with saliva. They like to nest in sheltered areas such as eaves, sheds and the mouths of pipes. In order to keep marauding ants from wasp young, They excrete a chemical that is toxic to ants. They are considered excellent pollinators, and seem to be of benefit to gardeners because they feed on nectar and other insects, including flies and numerous insects considered garden pests. They tend only to sting when their nest or their young are threatened.
I began to wonder if we might not offer wasps “eaves” or nesting grounds on posts near the garden, something like birdhouses with just one or two walls. As I thought about this, I began to make a few “wasp house” sketches.
In the end, rather than being scary, removing the wasp’s nest was an interesting exercise. When the wasps abandon their nest completely, I’ll go get it; small nests built of layers and layers of wasp-manufactured paper are profoundly beautiful and interesting–and another striking metaphor for a writer. Who knows, maybe I can even get them to generate paper nests for me if I build them some shelters—a clear and novel relationship of mutual benefit.