Living with wasps (and ourselves)
We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea. We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness. I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again - what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired. It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods. We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring. But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you. But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed. Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them. The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house. All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing. How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears. A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view. Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?) And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry. Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops. There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species. The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know. The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago. We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal. What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out? It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change. I need nature more than ever - to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context. A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car. Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too. Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.