Whose Planet is it Anyway?

It’s easy to draw negative conclusions about yellowjackets. They seem to us humans to always be in bad moods and so they are hard to love. They have little charisma. Though yellowjackets make good football mascots, they would not be on anyone’s short list for the next pilot cuddly creature show on “Animal Planet.”

Yellowjackets seem ill-tempered and scary. We associate them with picnics gone wrong. These small wasps can even be deadly if they come swarming unexpectedly out of an unseen nest and you, dear reader, happen to be allergic to their stings. I’m not allergic, but I’ve had three memorable encounters with yellowjackets in my life-once in my teens and twice in adulthood. All three times I was cutting grass and I disturbed a ground nest and the next thing I knew I was doing a frightful dance, swatting a swarm of little buzz saws.

This time of year they seem particularly ornery. Maybe it’s because a colony of yellowjackets expands in the late summer and early fall, the workers looking for food. After all, they’ll all be dead come winter except the yellowjacket queen. She’ll survive and next spring nest, lay eggs, and build her wasp queendom anew.

I lay all this out in order to get to the yellowjacket nest on the trail behind our house and the eco-ethical dilemma it presents me every day. For three weeks I’ve known the nest was there and have watched it on my walks. The entrance to the nest is a marvel of insect construction, a perfect one-inch hole in the dry piedmont mud worn smooth by thousands of take-offs and landings. The yellow and black wasps come and go at a rate of three to five at a time. I stroll close enough to see all this, then take a wide berth to pass it by.

The nest is not on the trail but slightly off to the side. When I first saw it my impulse was to run back up the hill, as most of my friends would do, fill a soft drink bottle with gasoline and finish it off, a first strike that would secure the trail for my daily walk. So what’s the ethical dilemma of bringing a little shock and awe to a bunch of wasps? Why not wipe the colony out?

Well, first of all, yellowjackets are native wasps. To be native is something I respect and admire and try to preserve. That alone in my hierarchy of plants and animals gives yellowjackets status over even the more even-tempered honey bees, their imported non-native cousins we’ve been clever enough to adapt to our own uses. As natives of this place yellowjackets deserve to do the work they evolved for-pollination and procreation.

Next, these deep-in-the-woods trail-side yellowjackets are wild. They don’t need me any more than I want them. Their ancestors built nests in the ground like this for millions of years and their wild ways haven’t been altered much 20,000 years of humans like me walking around them.

Because of how they have evolved, yellowjackets are interesting models as social animals go. Their community rules are clear. They nest. They secure food and water. Some of them mate with the queen. They protect their colony if it seems threatened, say by a lawn mower, or a careless walker who steps on their entry hole.

Every day I stand and ponder this nest and the slate of decisions it presents. Live and let live, or take it out because it might be a threat? Shape a life-lesson out of my reaction to this colony of bad tempered wasps? See it for what it is-a Kudzu column just waiting to be written?

Out of my observations I’ve concluded that it’s their planet as much as it is mine, and I’ll let this colony of wasps live out the seasonal cycle that will do them in anyway when the frost comes. My action will leave one more queen ready to start again in the spring, one more little dot on the wild map of the upstate.

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