One of the many bits of wisdom parents perpetrate on their children is this one: “If you leave it alone, it’ll leave you alone.”
This is a blatant lie, especially where stinging insects are concerned.
It is true, of course, that you’re at much greater risk of harm if you provoke a bee or yellow-jacket or some related critter. When my sister was about three years old, she was riding her tricycle down the alley when she tipped it over directly into the path of a bee, thus simultaneously bagging two highly improbable achievements. The bee, of course, promptly stung her, but who could blame it? It was just cruising along minding its own business. A bee doesn’t expect a tricycle to suddenly come toppling into its flight path.
My sister soon got her revenge, though. One early summer evening my dad called me and my mom to the back screen-door of our house. Our tiny lawn was filled with clover, and hence with bees. My sister, who was forced to wear heavy orthopedic shoes when she was young, had discovered that she could kill the foraging bees by stomping on them. Very possibly Dad suggested the idea; if so, she carried it out effectively and ruthlessly. She was stomping with glee; Dad, delighted and impressed, was snickering with approval; and Mom and I were staring at both of them like they were crazy.
Our family had no more run-ins with stinging insects until several years later, when I was a teenager. In the early 1970s Mom and Dad bought five acres of land with an old two-room house on it. This was just outside Perryville, Mo., the town where my grandparents lived, and it was intended as a weekend retreat. The house had electricity but no running water. There was an outhouse and a cistern, a small yard with an old wire fence, a chicken shed, and an enormous dump. (The ancient farmer who’d owned the property had just chucked all of his trash, from food cans to rat poison, over the backyard fence. For years. But that has nothing to do with this story.)
The cistern, it’s important to mention, didn’t last much longer. Two miles away, blasting for Interstate 55 was taking place. As most dedicated cavers know, Perry County is basically a huge chunk of limestone riddled with caves and sinkholes. One weekend we arrived at the house to find a big, deep pit at the back corner of the house where the cistern had been. Dad didn’t bother to fill it in or cover it. I think he may have put up a token sawhorse between the side door and the cistern hole, in case someone had to get up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse.
Anyway. The house itself came equipped with virtually nothing except wasps. It had a narrow, fairy-tale–like door that gave onto steep steps that led up to a small attic. Up there lived a veritable wasp society, possibly composed of multiple colonies. But this menace could be dealt with by simply never opening that tight-fitting door. The real problem was the porch, where an especially aggressive colony of red wasps had set up housekeeping in one corner. These wasps would come after you if you so much as looked their direction, and often if you didn’t. Unfortunately, whether you were inside or outside the house, you couldn’t get to the car or the rest of the property without passing the porch.
No matter how much I pleaded, Dad wouldn’t get rid of the colony. I gave these wasps as wide a berth as possible. “If I leave them alone, they’ll leave me alone,” I would chant to myself sardonically as they made threatening forays.
One day the wasps apparently had had some sort of bitter family dispute, and they were more pissed off than usual. I was walking cautiously in the yard toward the front of the house, so far away from the porch that I was practically scraping the rusty old fence. Maybe 12 feet away. Maybe 15.
It wasn’t far enough. One of the wasps zeroed in on me at warp speed and landed in my hair, which was extremely thick and long. I started running when I saw the wasp coming, but I didn’t have a chance. When I felt it tangling in my hair I flailed around with my hand to try to get it out. Instead, I accidentally closed my fist over it. In the midst of this mayhem, I had time to be impressed by the stone-like solidity of its body. Then a needle-sharp heat shot through my palm.
Meanwhile I was still tearing around the house. As I rounded the back corner, the cistern hole suddenly loomed directly in front of me. I’d forgotten about it. Like a palsied football player, I leaped sideways with a graceless lurch and almost ricocheted off the chicken shed. Still running, I managed to fling myself through the side door of the house. Somewhere along the way the wasp had escaped to live another day. Thank god only one of them had gone on the warpath. Since, unlike my sister, I’d never been stung by so much as a honeybee, I was unprepared for the amount of pain a wasp sting can cause.
That was some 40 years ago. My wasp phobia has abated somewhat. For a time, in my mid-twenties, I lived alone and therefore had to deal with any wasp problems without help. I lived in the second story of a house—essentially a large, finished attic, which had some little doors leading to unfinished storage spaces. Wasps lived in those spaces, and periodically one would squeeze through into my territory.
A coward to the bone, I didn’t know if I was more afraid of the wasps or of the toxic bug spray I needed to kill them. So I invented a different solution. Whenever I spied a wasp, I grabbed my bottle of 409, set it to “Stream,” and hit the wasp with a jet of liquid from as far away as possible. My aim, focused by adrenaline, was pretty good. The detergent in the 409 would gunk up the wasp’s wings, disabling it just long enough for me to move in with a blunt object for a safe kill. Then it was simply a matter of wiping up the 409. (My apartment was unusually clean in certain sectors.)
Anyone who’s afraid of wasps—or bug spray—is free to use this method. You’re welcome. Use at your own risk, however. Remember, it only works on one wasp at a time. Don’t try to wipe out a nest with 409 or everyone will deem you an idiot, assuming you live to tell the tale. And if for some reason you fail at this method, or if wasps have evolved a detergent defense over the past few decades, don’t sue me.
Also, when it comes to wasps, don’t ever tell your kids that if they leave it alone, it’ll leave them alone. Tell them to leave it alone and get the hell away.