Yesterday afternoon was mild and sunny, so after lunch I went outside to photograph the bees working the pink stonecrop around our backyard birdbath. These fuzzy pink flowers were literally crawling with honey bees, bumble bees, and an occasional fly: insects so intent on their own buzzing business, they paid me no mind as I stood next to them with my camera, zooming and snapping.
After I’d shot my fill of honeybee-on-flower photos, I made a wide, careful arc toward the far side of our driveway, intentionally leaving as much space as possible between me and a tall shrub by the gate to our fenced dog-pen. After shooting a few from-a-distance photos of the top of this shrub, I came back inside, mindful that I’d taken my last photo of the shrub’s current occupants, whom I’ve been watching with solicitous interest all summer.
Later today, our exterminator–a fellow who regularly comes to make sure termites aren’t eating our house–will destroy the bald-faced hornets’ nest I’ve spent the past few months watching grow from the size of a tangerine to the size of a cantaloupe. Although both J and I tried to be good neighbors to our resident colony of hornets, this past week those hornets have turned aggressive, stinging me multiple times when I took our dogs to or from their dog-pen and even stinging me on the face when I got out of my car in the driveway.
Bald-faced hornets don’t over-winter in their nests; instead, each year’s crop of female workers focuses all of its energy on producing fertilized queens who will spend the winter underground, the only ones to get out of the summer alive. Knowing that both sister workers and queen-fertilizing drones die when winter comes, I’d looked forward to examining their papier-mâché nest after they’d abandoned it: a biology lesson right in our backyard.
But this past week, I’ve gotten a biology lesson of a different kind. The colony of hornets with whom we’d been able to coexist peacefully through July and August suddenly turned nasty now that it’s September, as if their late-summer mission to protect their nest and produce fertile queens had turned them paranoid and aggressive. In July and August, I could walk right next to the hornets’ shrub, leading the dogs on their leashes either into or out of the dog-pen, and the hornets would ignore me. In July and August, I could walk right up to the hornets’ shrub to watch or photograph the nest, admiring how quickly the workers repaired it after a summer thunderstorm or simply watching the workers themselves come and go, their shiny black bodies decorated with cool white markings.
In July and August, I liked having a hornets’ nest close at hand where I could easily observe it, naively thinking the hornets and I had an unspoken agreement: “We’ll let you live in our backyard rent-free as long as you don’t sting us.” When one hornet stung me in mid-August, I overlooked this as anomalous: any insect can have a bad day. But now, our once-peaceful hornets have turned into aggressors, and we literally have to steer clear of them if we don’t want to get stung.
So, today the exterminator comes to destroy our newly aggressive neighbors. This past week, I’ve been walking the dogs every morning to avoid taking them to the dog-pen, and I’ve parked my car on the far side of the driveway, as far from the hornets’ nest as possible. I feel a little sad for the hornets themselves: they had a good situation living in a shrub with neighbors who would have allowed them to live out their lives undisturbed, but their own paranoia and aggression got the best of them. Instead of producing a fertilized queen who would survive the summer then pass along her genes next year, these industrious workers and drones will die inside the very nest they worked so hard to build and protect.