Thursday, 16 May 2013

How I Defeated the Hornets

    Today, a friend linked to a story about a Swedish man stung to death after attempting to mate with a hornets' nest. Having been stung by a yellowjacket myself, I found it difficult to imagine anyone actually inviting such a painful experience in such a sensitive area, but hey, there are crazies out there, right? Of course, this particular story is likely a hoax, according to this site.
    Nonetheless, the tale reminded my of something I'd been meaning to write up since last summer, when I discovered a thriving hornets' nest under our deck. While I am by no means an expert on extermination, perhaps my experience will be useful if you find yourself in a similar situation.

     It first crossed my mind that there might be a nest there when I noticed a yellowjacket land on the deck and then crawl down between the boards. As I pondered this, another landed in almost the same spot, and also disappeared between the 2x6es. Not wishing to be stung, I fetched a little mirror-on-a-stick gadget I have in my toolchest, and knelt down on the sidewalk next to the deck, a good two meters from likely location of the nest, based on the wasps' entry point.
     This was the only time I was stung during the entire operation, and at first I thought I had just bumped my wrist on an exposed nail or something. But there was no blood, no obvious sign of a puncture wound, only the characteristic swelling and pinkness that goes with a sting. And it hurt like crazy.
     The sting established a few things. First, it confirmed that there was indeed a nest present, and second, it was probably closer to this end of the deck than I thought, if I was so promptly attacked way over here. But it also established the commencement of hostilities between myself and the Vespulan colony, a war that would end with their utter destruction.

Phase I: Recon
     I considered what I knew of my enemy. Yellow jackets, like true hornets, bees and ants, are eusocial. That means the individual workers are more than happy to sacrifice themselves to protect the hive, but there's no benefit to the hive if they throw their lives away attacking something that isn't a threat. So presumably, even when they get all riled up, they probably won't chase you too far. And so I planned a raid to probe their defenses.
     I have a nice long stick with a natural hook at the end I use for picking apples. I wrapped cardboard around the end of it to make a kind of giant flyswatter, and approached the deck, after making sure there were no human noncombatants in the area. I saw a yellowjacket returning from foraging, and slammed it to paste with the swatter before retreating to the other end of the yard to observe. Almost immediately a dozen or so angry insects emerged and buzzed around in a combat patrol over the deck, their numbers growing as others presumably made their way from deeper in the nest. But they didn't stray much farther than two or three meters from base, and didn't seem to identify me, five or six meters away, as a target.
     I carried out a few more probing raids, standing a little closer to observe each time, but fleeing whenever a Vespulan got too close to me. In this way, I learned just how far they would pursue before breaking off the chase, valuable intel to inform the next phase of my campaign.

Phase II: Harassment and Attrition
     Interesting thing about yellow jackets. They are primarily predatory, bringing back insects and chewed up bits of carrion to feed the larvae, who secrete a rich sweet sugary fuel for the adult workers. Later in the season, when they focus on fattening up the breeders instead of feeding new larvae, the adults tend to shift their feeding habits to sweet stuff like fruit, which is why you'll sometimes see them buzzing around your root beer at picnics.
     Flying is a pretty energy-intensive activity, which is why the adults need more sugar. This was mid-July, the raspberries weren't falling off the bush yet, and the hive was still growing lots of new workers, so most of the Vespulans' flight fuel was still coming from larval secretions. Strategically, then, they were highly dependent on foraging. This became my target in Phase 2, the war of attrition.
     Each day, I made several harassment raids on the Vespulan colony, whacking the deck loudly with my swatter, retreating to just outside of their usual pursuit range, swatting targets of opportunity as they presented themselves. On a typical raid I might kill half a dozen workers, but that was just icing. Six dead workers meant six fewer foragers, but more importantly, forty angry wasps buzzing around defending the hive meant forty angry wasps delaying their foraging trips, burning up fuel, and needing to tank up again before going out to collect protein for the larvae.
     The attrition phase took a week or so, and eventually my persistence began to pay off. Fewer and fewer defenders emerged to meet each attack. Even so, I could not assume I had simply killed them all; presumably the higher fuel demands had caused more workers to be diverted to foraging, keeping a smaller combat reserve to defend the hive. But in any case, the groundwork had been laid for the final phase of the campaign.

Phase III: The Ground War
     The time had come to finish off the hive. By observing the Vespulans over the course of the campaign to date, I had a fair idea of how long it would take for them to be able to regroup after a raid. I also was fairly certain that the hive was attached to the underside of one of three adjacent 2x6es on the deck, which would need to be removed in order to carry out the final assault. I assembled the gear I would need: crowbar, swatter, a can of Raid (which in hindsight I probably didn't need). I also suited up with my fencing mask, a leather jacket, and work gloves, to reduce the likelihood of being stung.
     The assault began with a swatter raid, just like previous attacks, except that at this point my objective was to kill all of the defenders, not merely to harass them. There were few enough at this point that I was able to do so.
     Once I was satisfied there was no Vespulan in a position to sting me, I grabbed the crowbar and pried up the middle plank, where I hoped the nest would be attached. I had to move fairly quickly, as I wanted to finish this before returning foragers were able to join in the defense. Alas, the plank I removed was clean; the nest was attached to the next one over. I sprayed a goodly dose of Raid directly into the nest's entrance.

     As I said, in hindsight, I probably didn't really need to use chemical weapons. At the time, I didn't know how many adult workers might yet be inside the hive as a last reserve against intruders, but I assumed there would be some. Indeed, there were a few, but I probably could have squished them without being stung, with sufficiently aggressive tactics. Alternatively, I suppose I could have put duct tape over the entrance. I shall always have to live with having made that decision.
      In any event, I next grabbed the hoe and used its blade to scrape the nest free from the underside of the adjacent plank, and it fell to the ground under the deck where I couldn't conveniently reach it with my gloved hands. So I trotted to the garage and got a spear-like implement we have for weeding dandelions, and skewered the hive, bringing it out onto the sidewalk. Now it was just the mopping up.

     A couple of adult wasps did crawl from the entrance to the nest, but they were in no condition to attack me. The insecticide was already doing them in. With the nest on the sidewalk, some distance from its original location, any returning foragers were likely to go into a confused "Where the heck is my house?" search mode, rather than angrily seeking vengeance. (Insect brains are very small.)
     Still clad in my anti-sting armour, I began to dismantle the nest, which was a fascinating and beautiful structure. There were several layers of cells, many with larvae in them. I felt a pang of regret, but only a little. The hive was in a bad place, and as the summer progressed, it would become more of a  nuisance, so close to our main thoroughfare to the garage. Besides, one of them STUNG me! They started it!

    That said, I am not a sworn enemy of all yellow jackets. They're actually fairly beneficial creatures, preying as they do on many insects we consider pests. They don't seek out people to sting, tending to conserve their venom for when they need to defend the nest. As alarming as it is to have one buzzing around your plate in late summer, I don't think I can remember ever being stung by one that was out foraging, nor seeing someone stung under such conditions. Had they built their nest a bit more remotely, say, behind the garage, out of pursuit range from human routes, we could have peacefully coexisted. Alas.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

No Laughing Matter

     The other day, I was reminded of a joke I had the good fortune, years ago, to use with almost perfect effect. I was at a philosophy seminar in grad school where one of my colleagues was advancing the theory that humour is a weapon of oppression, while I was arguing that it was more effective as a weapon against oppression. At some point in the discussion, I asked the question: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? Fortunately, my colleague had not heard the joke, and it was delicious watching her struggle with her ideology and her desire to hear the punchline. Finally she gritted her teeth and said, "All right, how many?" clearly prepared to object to whatever I offered. When I delivered it, with a moralistic glower, "That's not funny!" it completely deflated her argument.
      (To her credit, she did not then complain about how this was just another instance of patriarchy using humour to ridicule and silence the voices of women.)

      The occasion that reminded me of this joke was the reaction to short piece on The Onion about how a heartbroken Chris Brown always thought Rihanna was the one he'd beat to death. Not surprisingly it was immediately met with harsh criticism, with the usual admonishments that domestic violence isn't funny. Well, duh. Of course it's not funny. But such objections miss the point of the joke, and more fail to understand the role of humour generally.
      The mistake is to think that one cannot take something seriously if one jokes about it. Sometimes this is true; we even use "just joking around" as an antonym for seriousness. Certainly much humour is solely aimed at mere amusement. So, too, is a lot of music. That hardly means that a composer who writes a requiem is making light of someone's death. Music is a powerful expressive medium, and the fact that it can be light and cheerful doesn't mean it can't be somber and profound as well.
      The same is true of humour, though perhaps not as obviously so. It's true that humour usually involves some sort of ridicule, or observation that something is absurd, but the crucial thing to recognize is what the real target of the ridicule is. I suppose you could say that's what the sense of humour is all about: being able to sense where the humour lies.
      People with little or no sense of humour may recognize that there's humour somewhere nearby, perhaps not by sensing the humour itself but by recognizing the contextual cues that indicate a joke is being made. But lacking the ability to directly perceive the humour, they may think it's targeted inappropriately, and I think that's what's happened with the Onion piece. The critics failed to notice that the real target of ridicule here was not victims of domestic abuse, but the perpetrators, who surely deserve a great deal of ridicule. The sheer absurdity of claiming to love someone, while expressing that "love" through violence, is something we all should recognize, and the Onion's joke zeroed in on that with ruthless accuracy.

     Ridicule is a tremendously powerful memetic weapon, when properly used. (Poorly used, it's pretty pathetic.) I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, about the dramatic decline in violence over the centuries, and one possible contributing factor he mentions is the role of humour. Films like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, or even Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, effectively lampoon the insanity of leaders who would take us to war over imagined slights or lunatic ideologies. Leaders who take themselves too seriously. These were very funny movies, but not because war is funny. Indeed, the true depth of the humour of these films depends on the audience's appreciation of how horribly evil a thing war is. And, as bad as domestic violence is, war is many orders of magnitude worse.

     I understand the sentiment. After all, who can argue with the statement that domestic violence isn't funny? Of course it isn't. But there is a danger, I think, in saying that certain topics must be treated "seriously", especially topics involving violence: generally speaking, violence is used by people who are trying to be taken seriously. We need it to be firmly  established in our culture that violence does not earn you respect. That applies equally to guys who beat their wives or girlfriends and to losers who set off bombs in public places.
     These people desperately need to be ridiculed, because they are ridiculous. The fact that they are also dangerous only makes it that much more important to reveal how ridiculous they are.