Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Dangerous Neighbor

The carpenter bee was dying.  There, on the walkway leading to my front door, it struggled to move, stumbling forward, wings humming feebly, unable to take to the air.  Normally, that would feel like a tiny tragedy, as bees are always welcome in my yard, but I am of two minds about carpenter bees.  

On the one hand, they're pollinators, vital for my garden and the future of our world.  On the other, they have over the years carved neat hole after hole into the painted wooden awning supports and siding of my home. 

By later in the day the thick-fuzzed yellow-black body was an unmoving corpse, and the reason for its demise soon became apparent.  I noted a new inhabitant entering the neat circular hole formerly belonging to the bee.  It was a wasp, large, starkly striped and fierce of appearance.  It was the obvious culprit, and had taken the bee's hidey-hole by force, a lethal winged conquistador.  

Rache and I sat out on our porch under that hole in the late afternoon, as our new neighbor hummed about near us.  Rache wondered aloud whether it was dangerous, because it sure did look that way.  Should I take it out?  It was tempting.  Bees are all fuzzy and cute, even the more troublesome ones, but wasps?  Wasps just look hard, purposeful and ready to fight you.  This one was nearly hornet-sized, and looked like it could deliver some serious hurt.  Was it a threat?

I didn't know the answer to her question, which I quickly remedied.  The critter turned out to be a variety of mason wasp, a species that will routinely attack and kill carpenter bees for the sole purpose of stealing their nests for their own.  They're not aggressive like those devil-spawned yellowjackets, cursed may they be.  You leave mason wasps alone, they leave you alone.  They're no more likely to sting than the carpenter bees, but when they do, their sting is indeed hornet-fire agony.  That was a little unsettling.

As I read more, though, I started to warm to the wasp.  Mason wasps don't just murder bees and steal their homes, which seems low karma even in the insect world.  They're builders, who don't do any damage to human houses themselves, preferring to create mud structures when they're not getting killy killy with some hapless bee.  The wasps also pollinate as they fly from flower to flower in search of pollen and nectar, if not quite as effectively as bees.  Beyond flower feeding, they also do something that carpenter bees do not: they hunt and eat caterpillars, both for themselves and to cart back to feed their young.

To which I thought, huh, they go after caterpillars?  Caterpillars are not my friend.  They'd devastated my greens, year after year, to the point where I now grow other crops.  They've nibbled away at squash.  I don't use pesticides on my garden, not ever, so when the munchy worms appear, I don't have a whole bunch of options.

All of a sudden, that lethal-looking blackstriped wasp was looking a whole bunch more welcome, less like a threat, and more like a new ally.  Like having a feral cat hunting mice in the granary, or a stray dog who takes to watching the henhouse and chasing away foxes.

Only slightly less pettable.  For now, they're welcome to stay.

It's always best to learn more about a new neighbor before jumping to conclusions.