Of Ducks and Wasps

Petra is still hanging in there; she’s a tough little bird, all right. We added two more Muscovies in the meantime; Basil (another blue) and Macrina (same coloring as Petra, though “Mac” is larger). I suspect both of the new ducks are females, but I’m basing that on their sound production alone. Probably not a sure-fire gender predictor. Bernie seems to have plucked the ends of Basil’s wings clean, behavior not uncommon among ducks getting acquainted. Seems unnecessarily rude to me, but I’m not a duck.

It has been about ten days since B and Mac arrived, so I think the Pecking Wars are over and, though Bernie is a control freak about the pools and feeding trough, all four are getting along. Petra is decidedly smaller than the rest, and the loss of sight on one side hampers her foraging. But Bernie has taken a bit of a shine to her, and that may be enough to keep her going. We hope so.

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A few months ago I mentioned having been stung by a yellow jacket; yep, the one who was rude enough to fly up my skirt. That encounter left me with a doctor bill, an EpiPen, and some scary information on how dangerous both a sting and the treatment could be. Just what an already sting-phobic soul needs. Today I got to check out my theory that my “allergic” reaction was due to the chemicals sprayed into the nest rather than to the venom. If I had trouble breathing this time I would inject the epinephrine, eat a bit of crow, and head for the nearest emergency room.

Here’s how it happened: I decided to tackle the side of the house that fronts the driveway. This area has been growing without human intervention for years, and was in bad need of a haircut. Actually, what it really needs is radical surgery. By 7:00 AM I was half-way though a major trim job on a rhododendron. Forty-five minutes later I was putting a second rhody out of its misery when I dragged a large branch through an overgrown azalea, which was next on my Extreme Landscape Makeover list.

What I didn’t know was that a large colony of bald-faced hornets (which are also called white-faced wasps, but which are neither hornet nor wasp, but an aerial yellow jacket) had taken up residence in the azalea. I also didn’t know, but found out fast, that bald-faced hornet workers are fierce protectors of their paper nests. I was fortunate that I was only stung once — these guys are really serious about keeping bothersome intruders away. I ran for the ice (which I highly recommend to quell the immediate pain of the sting), and decided to wait out the reaction before I grabbed the EpiPen. Gadgets like that scare me.

Sure enough, my reaction was classically “normal local”, and there was no indication of any systemic involvement. Gosh, I love to be right. Of course, “normal local” for a bald-faced hornet is ugly enough. I still have ice on it to keep the swelling down, it itches like crazy (thank you, God, for Benadryl), hurts to touch (or scratch), and is a fashionable shade of pink.

In spite of all that, I went back out to work for a few more hours. I stayed away from working on that rhody, the azalea, and an andromeda on the other side of the azalea. But I did spend some time watching the activity around that nest. The hornets quickly went back to their own normal behavior, zooming in and out of the nest as they foraged for food and wood to increase the nest size. As long as I didn’t disturb the nest, they left me completely alone.

It made me think about my reaction to the raccoons who made the murderous assault on our ducks. I was angry for days; I even enjoyed seeing raccoon pelts hanging in a cabin at Connor Prairie (Indiana), a sight that would normally have pulled at my heart. But once my bald-faced neighbors knew I was no longer a threat to their home, they forgot me entirely. One non-fatal sting and it was back to business as usual for the hornets.

I used to think of yellow jackets, hornets and wasps as being intentionally vicious, capable of harboring a grudge and willing to pursue something several gazillion times its own size just to get even. [Ahem … just a little anthropomorphism there.] Non-human critters are rarely mean for mean’s sake. Attacks are almost always undertaken in service of survival and abandoned as soon as the threat is gone.

I think we humans still have a lot to learn.

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