Creepy crawlies


Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Fly on hydrangea leaf - May 14 / Day 134

I submitted the last of my spring semester grades on Sunday night, which means I’ve spent much of this week catching up with things that fell by the wayside while I was grading, like keeping track of who’s been spending time in our backyard.

Step into my parlor

On Friday morning, the exterminator came as promised to destroy the hornets’ nest by our backyard dog-pen. After all the hoopla leading up to the occasion–a week of walking the dogs to avoid taking them to the pen, and a week of parking my car as far away from the nest as possible–the actual procedure was almost anticlimactic, with the exterminator arriving promptly at 10 am and taking approximately five minutes to spray the nest: quick and easy.

Spider web on shrub

Both J and I thought the exterminator would dress in protective clothing and spray the nest from a distance, using some sort of jet-sprayer or at least a long stick to pry into the nest from afar. But instead, the exterminator did the job wearing nothing but a company-branded T-shirt and work pants: no long sleeves, no goggles, and no face mask. (By comparison, I’d taken to wearing a thick fleece jacket when I took the dogs to or from the dog-pen, and to keeping my head down, with my face shrouded with my own hair, before I gave up approaching the dog-pen entirely.)

Spider web in sunlight

This, of course, is the difference between someone who knows how to do something and someone who doesn’t. The exterminator walked straight toward the nest, sprayed a tiny container of insecticide directly into the entrance, deftly leaped back while the hornets flew in an upset orbit around the nest, and then leaped toward the nest to repeat the process: leap in, spray; leap out, wait. It was almost like a dance, with the exterminator’s movements exactly timed with those of the hornets. The exterminator knew when to attack and when to retreat, and the industrial-strength insecticide he used was clearly effective, disturbing a small cloud of hornets that briefly circled the nest but quickly succumbed. In a matter of minutes, a task J or I might have done clumsily, ineptly, or entirely ineffectively was done definitively: the end.

Spider web on grass

Before he left, the exterminator said to leave the nest alone for a day or so, as it sometimes takes a while for individual hornets who were out foraging to return to the nest and die. By afternoon, however, J and I tentatively approached the still-intact nest to see if we could detect any activity in or near it, and it seemed silenced for good: no hornets flying around it, no discernible movement within it, and a few dead hornets scattered on the ground beneath it. In a matter of minutes, a thriving colony of creatures who had lived in our backyard for months was eliminated, their paper house standing as a mute reminder of what happens when you call in the professionals.

Spider web on grass

On Saturday, J disposed of the nest, clipping it out of the shrub where it had been attached then smashing it on the ground, emitting a puff of insecticide and a scattering of dead larvae before gathering the pieces into the trash. It seems strange that a threat I’d grown accustomed to fearing is suddenly gone. I still flinch when I take the dogs to or from their pen, my muscle-memory hunching my shoulders defensively as I instinctively keep my back toward the shrub where the nest used to be. How long will it be before I’ve forgotten the risk and can approach the dog-pen gate carelessly, no longer scanning the air for sunlight glinting off incoming insects?

Spider web with raindrops

The sense of hushed awe I feel after watching the exterminator deftly dispatch this nuisance nest is oddly similar to the sense of anticlimax I felt when we put Reggie to sleep. The injection worked so quickly and quietly–so easily–there was an element of disbelief running parallel with my relief. After all the hard work it took to keep Reggie alive in his final months–after how fiercely Reggie himself had clung to life, refusing to relinquish even his increasingly feeble grasp–could that strong, stubborn, and resilient life be snuffed out so quietly, so quickly, without even the merest hint of resistance or struggle? Is life truly so fragile–so tenuous–that it can be extinguished irrevocably with just the right dose of chemicals, expertly administered?

Today’s photos of spider webs come from this time last year, when our neighborhood web-weavers seemed particularly active.

Two bees

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.

Three bees

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.

Repaired and fully spherical

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.

Here's looking at you

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.

Upsy daisy

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.

Side by side

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.

Busy bees

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.

Remodeled

Yesterday morning, I photographed the latest addition to our backyard bald-faced hornets’ nest. In the days since I’d shown you this nest, the workers had added a floor and entryway on the bottom and some eyelid-style vents on the top, transforming what had been an open, bell-shaped structure into a covered, well-ventilated sphere.

Storm damage

And then came yesterday afternoon’s torrential thunderstorm, which sheared off the outer layer of the nest, exposing its inner chamber.

All day today, the hornets have been working nonstop, some of them tending to the fat white larvae in their cells and others worrying over the outer edges of the nest’s papery surface, repairing it with individual mouthfuls of chewed wood fibers. It takes a while to build a paper wall if you’re moving one tiny mouthful at a time, but hornets (like bees) are tireless and resilient creatures. I have no doubt that within a week, if left undisturbed, these sister hornets will rebuild their nest as good as (or even better than) before.

Tending the larvae

Bald-faced

J discovered a bald-faced hornets’ nest in the shrub right next to the gate to our backyard dog-pen: a shrub J and I pass every time we take one of the dogs out or in, and a shrub I pass every time I get into or out of my car. The nest is small by hornet standards–only the size of a tangerine–and we had no idea it was there until J trimmed the shrub last week, and the hornets came buzzing after him.

Tangerine-sized

J is good about backing down in the face of angry hornets, so he wasn’t stung…and now that he’s finished trimming “their” shrub, the hornets have gone back to being placid, non-aggressive neighbors, quietly tending their larvae and otherwise ignoring the man, woman, and dogs who pass them multiple times a day.

Now that I know the nest is there, I take care not to brush up against this particular shrub, and I know to steer the dogs clear of it, too. If we were to remove this nest, hornets would take up housekeeping elsewhere nearby, potentially where we didn’t know to watch for them. For the time being, I feel safer knowing who my neighbors are and where exactly they live, and I’ll continue not bothering them if they continue not bothering me.

After a killing frost

On cold autumn mornings, you’ll sometimes find dew-chilled yellowjackets that didn’t survive the previous night’s killing frost.

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