Lessons from a paper wasp

The author narrates how she wised up to the ways of the natural world and learnt when not to use her bravado.

Paper wasps get their name from the papery texture of their nesting material.

The fence along our boundary and our little cottage in Navilu Kaadu natural farm, are both powered by solar energy. The mildly electrified fence keeps grazing goats, cattle, and idle humans from straying in. We routinely clear the fence of brush and bramble to keep the voltage from dropping.

I have mixed feelings about this clearing operation. Left alone, these uncleared patches of vegetation make for cosy habitats and nesting sites for birds, lizards, skinks, insects, snakes and more. We are compelled to de-weed along the fence though, to maintain adequate voltage to deliver a harmless jolt to intruders from the human realm, even as fauna of the untamed variety effortlessly hop, slither, crawl and fly in and out, over or between the gaps in the fence.

Smoking out

Encounters with Navilu Kaadu’s wild dwellers aren’t uncommon, but more likely while clearing the fence. On one such occasion, Siddhappa, the farmhand clearing the fence, called out to me urgently. The man sounded anxious.

Pointing towards an overgrown shrub, he said we had to smoke out the ‘KaNajada Goodu’. On closer inspection, I spotted the nest of a paper wasp.

These wasps get their name from the papery texture of their nesting material. They scrape and chew wood and plant fibre to produce this material, which they then shape into hives with hexagonal cells, much like a honeycomb. The nest resembles an upturned parasol, hence also the name ‘umbrella wasp’.

Now paper wasps or umbrella wasps are nature’s own biocontrol agents and keep pests at bay in farms and gardens. But this particular nest was in an overgrown shrub of Lantana Camara, an invasive weed choking India’s forests and countryside.

Much as I wanted to leave the area undisturbed, we had to clear it to stem the spread of Lantana along the fence, but not before the wasps delivered an indelible lesson.

In my zeal to have the nest removed without harming the wasps, I asked Siddhappa to chop off the branches around the nest before tackling the entire bush, so the limb with the nest could be moved to safety.

Wise old Siddhappa offered his counsel — smoking the wasps out was the only way to do it, he said.

I had other novel ideas to take the wasp nest to safety, or so I thought. I had done this earlier — in my ignorance, I’d picked up a dry agave leaf with what appeared to be a dead snake in its fold, and deposited it beyond our boundary, to allay fears among the women farmhands mulching our saplings.

I urge folks to never handle a snake — dead or alive — without proper training. Give snakes their space and they’ll stay out of your way. We later identified the snake as the venomous saw-scaled viper, known to possess an aggressive and irritable disposition.

A wasp nest wasn’t nearly as deadly, I conjectured.

I then proceeded to insert my right arm into the bush to untangle the chopped branch from the rest of it. In the blink of an eye, blistering pain ratcheted up my right forearm. A paper wasp, riled at this deliberate intrusion into its territory, had delivered a painful sting at Mach speed. Neither me nor Siddhappa saw the stinging wasp even as it found its target.

An angry inflammation appeared around the knuckle at the base of my right index finger. While the pain subsided soon enough, the swelling took a while to recede. Siddhappa too suffered stings to his lower lip and right arm.

Wasp stings can trigger severe allergic reactions and prove fatal to some.

Luckily, neither Siddhappa nor I were predisposed to such allergies.

I have since wised up to the extreme consequences of similarly foolhardy actions and am now less prone to such imprudence and bravado.

Brace for an encounter next month, with funky creatures that descend upon our mango saplings over the seasons.

Rooting For Nature is a monthly column on an off-kilter urban family’s trysts with nature on a natural farm.

The author chipped away at a software marketing career before shifting gears to communications consulting and natural farming. She blogs at www.bluejaydiaries.com and posts as @ramyacoushik on Instagram