Thursday, April 28, 2005

Backyard natural history notes (Alternative title: Backyard folklore?)

Some yellowjackets are building a nest by the door to my storage shed, behind the house. Yellowjacket is the name those of us who grew up in Texas have for a species of paper wasp with a bad sting and a low patience endowment, Polistes exclamans. They are not the same as the yellowjackets in the East and Midwest, which belong to a different genus and usually live underground, in larger colonies. Our yellowjackets typically only have maybe ten or twenty individuals to a nest, though the colonies can get larger.

I can see that the nest is going to cause trouble, if not for me then for the roofers who are putting new shingles on the house and the shed repairing the hail damage. I don't want to knock the nest down, because I would inevitably get stung, and I don't like poisoning them. Also, these wasps are useful in preventing the outbreaks of web caterpillars that attack my pecan tree and can sometimes strip most of its leaves. They kill and eat these caterpillars.

I used to know a guy who claimed he moved yellowjacket nests to new locations safe for both them and for human beings. He said they would attack only when startled by sudden movement, and if you do not trigger this attack instinct by moving too fast, you can gently, gently, pluck a nest of these wasps with your fingers and they won't sting you. He said it is a threshold response, and you just have to keep your movements below the threshold. Like house movers moving a house. He would hang them up in new places with a clothespin. Or so he used to say.

I am not saying I doubt him, exactly (has anyone else ever heard of this, though?) but I am not inclined to try it myself. Even if it is true, a lot could go wrong. As in, oops.

I think for the moment I'll just tell the roofers to watch their step, and I'll do the same.

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