Tuesday, August 22, 2006

b season

I walk down the big Castro hill, shopping list in hand:

d cells
b poison
q tips
pig catapult

It looks like a fool's errand, doesn't it? But it isn't. I don't know what to do about the bees and -- to make matters worse -- my ears are dirty. That explains the d cells, the b poison, and the q tips.

I'll tell you about the pig catapult later. At least you know that it's not an impulse purchase. I've been thinking about it all week. A pig catapult. A pig catapult! What'll they think of next? My own pigs seem less than eager when I describe it, but I've only had a week to convince them. A pig catapult! Who wouldn't want one?

The list should probably be in alphabetical order, but it isn't. Nor is it chronological. But it may be the best-sounding list I've made in a long time: d cells. b poison. q tips. pig catapult.

The D cells are for the security guard-sized flashlight that I'm going to use to go look at the bees after dark. When I've mustered my courage. When it's cold and they aren't buzzing all over the place. When no-one -- including the bees -- can see me outside wearing Mark's welding helmet. Right now it seems more important to blog about the bees than to go look at them with the big flashlight. What if I wake them up? What if they're crabby when they're awoken by a stranger in a welder's helmet carrying a big flashlight?

To call it "b poison" is misleading; they're not actually bees of the sort that inspired Jaina's many tattoos. Those bees are good bees. These are bad bees.

Do be a Do Bee, don't be a Don't Bee.
--Miss Connie from Romper Room
These are most definitely Don't Bees.

They're yellowjackets, which are social wasps. And not the kind of social wasps with summer places out on Martha's Vineyard. These social wasps seem to have colonized the short slope between the second and third terrace in our garden. I wouldn't say they've gentrified it (the way wasps do) and sent the slugs moving on. It's more like the Donald Trump of yellowjackets came by, straightened up his hairpiece (that is a hairpiece, isn't it?), cleared his throat, and announced he was going to build a Big Tower or file for Chapter 11 trying.

Actually it's not a tower. Did I say it was a tower? It's a hole. A BIG hole. A BIG MOTHERFUCKING hole. With bees flying in and bees flying out.

You really don't notice them from up here in the living room, but I was down on the terraces when I first spotted the hole. Gardening. Gardening as much as I ever garden. For me, gardening means that I take a pair of clippers and snip at this and hack at that and maybe uproot some of the smaller, uglier plants that are more likely to be weeds. I also cut the blooms off the Agapanthus (aka shopping mall plants) because they seem to be enormously fertile; every seed seems to produce another Agapanthus. It's as if they're in some kind of purple fundamentalist plant sect -- reproduce, reproduce, reproduce; it's God's will. We are the chosen plant. And I try to keep the equally abundant wisteria in check too as it snakes around the poor asparagus fern (d. Meyer) and chokes the lemon tree.

Snakes? Did I say snakes?

If there's one thing I won't talk about these days, it's snakes. Last night both Jon Stewart and my hero Stephen Colbert could not resist the damned Snakes on a Plane bit. I, however, will show some restraint and not say a word about motherfucking snakes or motherfucking planes. See. It's so easy not to say it. (Geoff Nunberg didn't mention it on the Colbert Report, even though Snakes on a Plane is clearly a linguistic phenomenon rather than a cinematic phenomenon.)

Anyway, it's not snakes living in that hole on the slope between the 2nd and 3rd terrace; it's yellowjackets, the kind that'll snatch an unholy chunk of burger off your plate at a picnic and do the backstroke in your Coke while they wait to rip the end off your tongue. The kind that eat FLESH and love it.

There I was, on the third terrace hacking and snipping and tugging and grubbing. There seemed to be a lot of movement at the threshhold of my vision. I didn't have my reading glasses on, but it appeared to be purposeful insect activity. Lucky for me, I couldn't tell what the flying insects were. So I went ahead and snipped futilely at some aggressive ivy creepers and encroaching pyrocanthus twigs.

I'm a terrible gardener. Ivy makes me break out. And I can't keep my attention focused on any one thing when I garden. I start pulling weeds here, and I notice that the papyrus thicket needs thinning there. Then I start snipping at the ivy again. And pulling out oxalis. So it took me a long time to notice the big scary hole. And from my brief foray into entomological web sites, that big hole is an opening into an even larger yellowjacket nest.

There's a time to garden and a time to not garden. There's no reason to destroy the beauty of untamed nature. At least right now there isn't.

Thus the b poison. (I hope you didn't think I was going to clean their little yellowjacket ears with the q tips.)

The b poison is from the plant store that's next to the pig catapult store. It's where I bought the soil that produces the yellow mushrooms that have infiltrated my houseplants. It's socially responsible b poison. I wonder if it works? Perhaps I should just feed the yellow mushrooms to the yellowjackets. Make them a yellow mushroom burger, perhaps.

There are instructions on the bottle, but they don't really discuss yellowjackets. They're focused on slow-moving insects like tomato hornworms and a phids (which alphabetically precede b poison). It's no trick to get rid of tomato hornworms. They're not hard to catch, nor are they particularly bright. I beat them at dominos every time. And checkers? Those guys are 'tards! You don't need instructions for dealing with them.

But yellowjackets. They're a different story. They're the bad boys of the flying insect world. I'd feel much better doing research on the yellowjackets than I would, say, shining a flashlight down their hole and attempting to feed them b poison in an angelfood cake with Spam frosting.

I eventually found a helpful agricultural website run by the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program. I can tell that these guys are board-certified entomologists; the program's director, Rick Roush, is pictured examining a slender green insect, perhaps a tomato hornworm who's been on the South Beach Diet. Rick has an expression of wry merriment -- just the kind of look that you'd trust if you wanted to learn about the habits and foibles of the wily western yellowjacket, Vespula pensylvanica (which the web site helpfully informs me is sometimes called the "meat bee").

Meat bees, indeed. Here's what I learned:

  1. If they're in the right setting, yellowjackets are good guys, eating harmful insects like tomato hornworms. You can think of them as Hell's Angels on a Toys for Tots run: setting is very important.

  2. Our garden is not the right setting. You can think of it as a dark bar with cheap booze and a bathroom like the one in Trainspotting. It'll bring out the worst in a yellowjacket.

  3. The colony -- which may already host as many as 4 to 5K workers and 10 to 15K ugly little larvae -- will continue to grow until late fall. The worker yellowjackets carry the larvae on their chests in Snuglis ala Noe Valley parents.

  4. In places where it freezes, yellowjackets die in the winter. In San Francisco it does not freeze during the winter, so the nest just gets bigger and bigger.

  5. Don't shine a flashlight into their nest; it irritates them.

  6. Don't irritate them.

  7. Poisoning them irritates them.

  8. Hunger irritates them.

  9. Saying "snakes on a plane" irritates them.

  10. They're irritable by nature.

  11. There is no distance that's far enough away to spray them with the aerosol bug killing stuff, let alone to apply environmentally-friendly hardly-toxic-at-all liquid from the store down the hill. Forget about upgrading to Raid.

  12. You'd be well advised to call a pest control professional.

  13. Wear protective clothing while you're calling a pest control professional. Remember that yellowjackets can fly 6 to 7 mph, almost as fast as a human pursued by yellowjackets can run.

  14. There are 14 yellowjackets to a dozen; that's why it seems like there are so many hovering around the nest.
I think I got the message. Irritable meat bees. Pest control professionals


For years I've been obsessed with those Western Exterminator trucks with the 3D vignette featuring a rat with a fork and knife in his paws and a guy in an opera hat wielding a hefty mallet. This is my chance to see one close up.

Yellowjackets, watch out! If you're going on that Toys for Tots run, now's the time.

I haven't forgotten about the pig catapult. It'll have to wait 'til later this week. By then I'll have the pigs convinced that the catapult is fun and my ears'll be clean.

But I'm not making any promises about the bees.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work. I started reading after a search for "meat bees" to see where they get their poison from. I couldn't stop after the pig catapult hook and the shared obession with the avant garde exterminator.

9:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home