Never have I felt more alive that at age twelve while on summer vacation from school. My world seemed endless; the summer way too short to explore all of the possibilities. So it was on one hot August day in this summer of 1963.
There was a path through the woods that ran along the edge of a kettle hole blueberry swamp that I traveled everyday between my grandmother’s house and the home of my best friend, Jeff. The swamp was always a great place to explore, full of endless paths and tunnels in thick overhanging brush winding under branches of highbush blueberry perched on elevated island hummocks. The paths were lined with cool, wet peat moss that was emerald green in the summer and ruby red in the autumn. The moist peat moss held the cool water that soaked your hands and knees while crawling through the swamp’s byways. This was a favorite retreat from a hot summer’s day.
The heat and humidity that day were downright oppressive. Only nine in the morning and the air was as thick as molasses. Deerflies taunted me as they tried to grab a piece of my scalp in my sweaty hair. Swatting at them yielded mostly a lump from the heavy crack of my own hand. I was running a bit early that morning for my friend’s late sleeping patterns so I decided to explore a section of the swamp that I had not ventured into that summer.
For the first forty or fifty feet into the swamp I could hop from tussock to tussock, but as I approached the blueberry hummocks I had to resort to crawling on my hands and knees. My PF Flyers were already soaked through the canvas tops. I could feel the water between my toes as my socks provided almost no barrier to the deepening water. The cool peat moss soaking my hands and feet was actually a welcome relief from the already steamy morning. I envisioned that look that my mother would give me later that day when she saw my green stained legs and soaked clothes. She had long since given up trying to keep from this once forbidden heaven.
About 200 yards into the swamp I spotted a lone red maple tree. I decided it was a good place to relax and bide my time until my friend was available to explore the summer world with me. As I approached the tree I could see a bald faced hornet’s nest dangling from a branch about twelve feet off the ground. The gray and white pear shaped nest was, for the moment, inactive. I watched the nest for about five minutes. No hornets could be seen either entering or leaving the papery globe that dangled over the steamy swamp.
The bald-faced hornet, also known as the white faced hornet, is not really a hornet at all but a common member of the yellow jacket family. This means it is truly a wasp. These diligent creatures of the insect world build “paper” nests made of chewed wood pulp. The female workers gather wood from sticks that have no bark with their mouths. They turn this wood into a paste by combining the wood with a saliva-like secretion that softens the wood. The pasty pulp is then excreted by the worker and woven into layers that form the nest. These nests can be up to 18 inches wide and two feet in length. They can house 700-800 individual bald-faced hornets by time to cool weather of autumn rolls in.
Like most wasps, the white-faced hornet lives in organized colonies that have a fertile queen, fertile drones, and infertile female workers. The queen, or foundress as she is often referred to, is the mother of the entire colony. The foundress lays her eggs in hexagonal shaped cells where the larvae remain until they hatch in about 20 days. In the autumn the young workers nest in the ground underneath thick layers of decaying leaves and organic matter. The fertile queen, most drones, and older workers perish to the cold weather. In the spring the female workers and a few fertile drones emerge. The workers build a nest, one becomes fertile and mates with a drone. A new colony is born.
White-faced hornets are predacious, eating other insects and are especially fond of their cousins the yellow jacket. These wasps will often invade the carcass of a dead animal, hide beneath the rib cage of the decaying meat and wait for yellow jackets to appear to feed on the rotting corpse. The bald-faced hornets attack the yellow jackets, snip off their heads and consume their very surprised prey. This wasp also enjoys the nectar from flowers and fruit and can often be seen drinking from the mouth of an open flower.
The best known trait of the white-faced hornet is the ferocity with which it defends its nest. A single wasp can issue multiple stings, and hordes of wasps can punish nearly all would-be predators. Their venom is very painful since it is directed at the nervous system. Pain should not be confused with toxicity, however. The sting of a honeybee is far more toxic even though it is less painful.
Being a boy of twelve who did not always think clearly when presented with a challenging opportunity I decided that it would be a good idea to stir things up a bit. After all, what good was a perfectly quiet hornet’s nest! I located a nearby branch that had broken off the red maple tree. I carefully broke a section of the branch and created the perfect missile, a twelve inch stick that weighed about a pound. I looked around and located what appeared to perfect escape route; a narrow tunnel heading more or less to dry country in the direction of my friend’s house.
I remember watching the stick sail through the air, tumbling end over end. Never was a stick thrown more perfectly with such accuracy! The heavy, wet stick struck the nest dead on, bashing in the side of the light gray paper mache wall. Instantly, and I do mean instantly, several hundred bald-faced hornets swarmed in my direction. I’ll never know how they knew my precise location but the fact is they flew directly towards me as though I had been on their radar screen well before I tossed my weapon.
As they rapidly approached me I tripped, fell over, and scurried for my escape route. Surely they could not follow me through this thick brush! I entered the tunnel, bald-faced hornets right on my tail. The first ten yards were promising, thick brush, a narrow passage, and then, oh my God, a dead end!
The defenders had no mercy. My plan had failed and their defense succeeded. As I crashed through a wall of thick highbush blueberries that slowed my escape considerably I was stung repeatedly. Over and over again I tried to brush the hornets off only to find dozens more attacking me with vengeance. My only escape was to continue pounding through the tangled brush in search of an upland trail.
It was distance that halted their assault. Once I had tumbled through about 100 yards of dense underbrush the marauders no longer pursued me. I was scratched, scraped, and stung from the top of my head to the soles of my PF Flyers. Wildly uncomfortable, and no longer seeking random adventure, I headed towards home.
I knew the real adventure was about to begin as I returned home to the unapproving “stings” I was about to receive from my mother’s unsympathetic eyes.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in August of 2004.