Wasps, yellow jackets and the case of the dropped axe

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In an article aimed primarily at farmers, Talmadge Balch, noted Auburn Extension Entomologist, once wrote about wasps.
He said that wasps (and that term includes hornets, mud daubers and yellow jackets) are commonly considered beneficial because they kill destructive insects but that they can become nuisances in certain places because they can inflict serious and sometimes fatal stings.
I don’t reckon I was ever in danger of being fatally stabbed by a wasp, but I can testify that they certainly can inflict a painful sting. Robbing wasps’ nests used to be one of our main sports. Along in the late summer or early fall, you could nearly always find a big, active nest in some old crib or cotton house. The object was to sneak up to it and knock it down with a stick, or something — without getting stung.
I recollect that the cotton house out at Ridge Field nearly always had a big one in it. James and Billy and I would approach it with all the wariness of a Cheyenne stalking a buffalo. Then, remembering previous encounters, I would graciously offer one of my cousins the opportunity of administering the coup de grace while I straggled way at the back of the action.
Then he’d knock it down and we’d all go tearing out away from there as fast as our bare feet would take us as the enraged, buzzing wasps searched vengefully for their persecutors, and they stung anything that moved if they could catch it, and invariably that was me.
Oh, that’d tickle my friends. I, who had only been a curious onlooker, would be getting it right in the neck or some other hind side while the actual malefactors would be rolling with glee at my plight, apparently blessed with some kind of immunity to wasp stings. I never understood it.
As for yellow jackets, ordinarily a body wouldn’t have much occasion to have any trouble with them, but once in a while you’d start cutting weeds in the pasture or cutting off a ditchbank or terrace or snaking logs and , before you knew it you’d be smack dab in the middle of a nest.
Take the Case of the Dropped Axe, for example. Daddy found this old chestnut tree that had died, along with all the other chestnut trees in the country, when the Chestnut Blight came along, and he thought it might still be good for fence posts, so he delegated Jack and me to take the mules over there and drag it back to the house, which seemed a simple enough assignment.
So we hitched up, got a chain, an axe and a saw, and went up past Kelley’s and Mr. Cebe’s and on over to the Chandler place where we turned off and went down an old field road and through a couple of gates till we got almost there. Then, as Jack was opening the last gate, he noticed a yellow jacket nest right in the middle of the path through the gate, no way to get around it.
Well, I figured that if I drove the mules carefully through, we might escape unscathed, since the yellow jackets hadn’t been stirred up yet. I hoped so since a yellow jacket stung mule tends to get nervous. And we did! WE got through safely. Then I discovered that Jack had dropped the axe squarely on top of the yellow jacket hole — and by now they were stirred up, but good. And he wasn’t about to go back and get it.
That left me. So, as I thought about which method of killing my baby brother would be the most deliciously slow and painful, I went back to get the axe and got stung — front and rear, top and bottom — five times in all. Well, as Uncle Kelley was fond of saying after he came back from Chicago, I was rooned anyway, so I slowly and deliberately stuffed and packed dirt in the hole until not another yellow jacket would evercome out of that hole again. They had become a nuisance.
So it’s strange that I have almost an affection for that big nest of striped wasps in the ivy near my front door. They haven’t bothered anybody — yet. And after all, I may have had dealings in the past with some of their ancestors. We’re practically kinfolks.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at bobbypsanders@gmail.com.

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