Wasps I have known
Adam Smith lists some of the onslaughts he has suffered at the hands of nature’s finest – and seemingly most vindictive – critters during two decades of keepering
As a child, I lived in a cottage next to our village pub. Outside bucket loo, tin bath, no hot water – none of the aspects of modern living a Guardian reader could cope without for more than a day, or two if an environmental activist.
Among the garden’s few amenities were three fruit trees, an apple and two greengages, and an abiding memory of the time was sitting on squashy over-ripe windfalls to find that I shared the space with an annoyed and aggressive wasp – which promptly stung me on the bum, or similar. The resulting stings were painful, but didn’t last long and proved little worse than gnat bites and no way as bad as a stout – what we called horseflies.
Fast forward 30 years or so and things changed for the worse, though I’ve no idea why metabolisms alter. Anyway, mine did, big time.
The Boss rang to tell me wasps were disappearing down a hole in the bank of the moat. Could I slip along with the old necessary and give ‘em a dose? The ‘necessary’ was a well-known white powder which, in those days, was available to keepers simply by signing the poisons register at the nearest farm supply shop.
These days, it’s used by licensed pest control operatives at around £60 a squirt, but then the established and highly mechanised dosage system – using a spoon tied to the end of a longish stick – was equally foolproof, provided the wind was in the right direction. No doubt in breach of enough of today’s H&S directives to see me banged up in Strangeways for a while.
However, those were the days, and they were the means, so after a bit of a recce for flight direction, hole size, angle of approach, security of foothold on steep bank, etc, etc, I loaded my spoon with more than enough to kill a horse and crept and slid to within a few feet of the nest site. And, I might add, the skill levels required for this perilous approach technique could well be added to the SAS handbook.
After waiting to check if getting close had aroused any violent thoughts among my intended victims, I carefully tipped the powder into the hole. And then beat a hasty retreat.
Hasty, yet not hasty enough. I heard the high-pitched and spiteful whine of an approaching sentry who latched on to my unprotected forearm and proceeded to jam his sting in as deep as his wretched little black and yellow body allowed. Luckily, it was only the one wasp and only one relatively weather-hardened arm that bore the brunt, and although he paid the price with a forceful slap which left his tattered remains hanging by his sting, I continued my retreat with an increased sense of panic, expecting a swarm of fellow travellers.
But as luck would have it, that was that. Finding a safe vantage point, I watched as increasing numbers of wasps flew in and out, each of them falling within seconds to eventually form a black and yellow mound running down the bank. Returning a few hours later, I dug out the nest, about the size of a rugby ball, and covered everything with fresh earth. Job done – except that the sting was throbbing away and my arm was noticeably swollen. I’d never reacted so
strongly before and I wondered if perhaps I’d got contaminated. But the throbbing diminished, the swelling went down and I thought no more of it.
Then, only a week or so later, I was clearing a track for a beater using a slasher when that high-pitched whine told me all was not well. Again, with great good fortune, I’d only annoyed one wasp but he was all I needed, under the circumstances. This little charmer stung me smack between the eyes and I could feel the effects within seconds. Running back to my truck I high-tailed it for home and cold water but the effect was so dramatic I could barely see by the time I’d got back.
The bridge of my nose was now about 3in across and the swelling closed both eyes, ran down to include my top lip and generally gave me the look of Charlie Chan meets Frank Bruno. And it hurt. The pain lasted nearly a week, involving large numbers of cold compresses, a total lack of sympathy from all three children – who thought Daddy looked “Whooah! Scary! Ha, ha!” – with a shortened temper to match.
The real puzzle remained. Why was I reacting so violently to wasp stings? Although far more by luck than judgement, I’ve not been stung since, I can’t understand or explain it to this day.
What I can understand, because I think they are among the most unpleasant and aggressive creatures on the planet, is why I loathe rats, and here’s two experiences to justify my opinion.
In the confined space of one of my feed huts – hand-crafted non-council-approved corrugated iron sheds, built to house corn bins and keepers’ clutter – I met up with the most aggro-laden buck rat ever. Quite what had annoyed him, other than the imminent prospect of an early demise, I know not, but he came hurtling towards me literally chittering with rage, jumped and landed with forepaws grasping the top of my wellie.
Luckily for me, though not him, I was accompanied by my terrier – whose name was Beagle – who promptly took him off in a neat and efficient swiping movement. After a brief but violent bit of shaking, the lifeless body was dropped at my feet and Beagle earned a Bonio. But what, I asked myself many times, if I’d been alone, without the benefit of a slavering ball of retribution? What if ratty had jumped an inch of so higher and disappeared straight down inside my left wellie with mayhem in mind? Anyway, bless you, Beagle.
Another time, I was sort of pigeon shooting. No hide, no deeks and a half hour to waste, sat on a bank beside a sitty tree with a bit of a bush in front. You know that feeling, when you’re gazing around hoping for a shot, and something tells you all is not quite as it should be?
Well, I just glanced down and between two buttress roots of the oak sat a large buck rat. To be fair, he simply sat, looking at me through those beady little black eyes and if I’d left well alone he’d very probably have scuttled off, or ducked back out of sight.
But I sat with a 12-bore across my knees and he was only about 4ft away, and he was a rat so I had to shoot him. No time to get gun to shoulder, I just swung the muzzles as best as I could guess and pulled the trigger.
Stupid, really, and a long way from sound shotgun handling, but that’s what I did. And I know there’s a lot these days about honey badgers and wolverines and other megaaggressive wild animals, but I defy anyone to guess what that rat did, following the immense explosion and a crater the size of a melon opening up directly in front. He jumped straight at me and landed on my thigh. Now that, quite apart from being skin-crawlingly and gut-wateringly wobble inducing, is the action of a mean creature. Brave, but nasty.
My reaction was to break all current standing jump records while making dramatic flailing hand movements. And since, sadly, no representative from the Guinness Book was on hand, my achievement was lost to posterity, but at least the second barrel, fired in a rather more conventional style, restored some pride.
‘I heard the high-pitched and spiteful whine of an approaching sentry, who latched onto my unprotected forearm’
Adam’s resistence to wasp stings seemed to fade over the years until they presented quite a problem Rundown storage huts are heaven on earth for rats so keep your wits about you if you plan on going in Despite their terrible public image, wasps do have their uses. They diet on agricultural pests such as aphids and whiteflies, they cross-polinate fruit and researchers are investigating their potential for fighting cancerous cells. Not bad for this most despised of creatures!
If you plan to wander into rat territory, it’s best to take a trusty terrier along for safety