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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Stinging Barbarians

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Tom Murphy wages an epic battle with a particularly pesky backyard pest.


CURWOOD: Commentator Tom Murphy gets along with most of the stinging insects on his Pennsylvania farm. He’s kind to bumble bees, honey bees, even wasps. But there’s one member of the hymenoptera family he cannot abide.

MURPHY: Not yellow jackets. In late summer, as the social structure of the hive breaks down, yellow jackets become like a barbarian army on leave – attacking men, women, and children in their efforts to gorge themselves on sweet liquid or fermenting fruit. Everyone in my family has been wounded, our youngest child many times.

One summer day I noticed excessive yellow jacket activity in the backyard, and my study of their movements led me to the mouth of their cave in a bank about twenty feet from our door. There I watched, as one yellow jacket after another landed in the fine dirt at the base of the mouth and swaggered into the opening. An enemy fort in my backyard. It demanded action.

So in the cool of the evening, when all the members of the hive should have returned, I went to the mouth of their barrow bearing a teakettle full of boiling water. Like the hero Beowulf shouting a challenge into the cave of the dragon ravaging his kingdom, like Roland refusing to call for help when confronting the Saracen hoards, like Odysseus defying the monstrous Cyclops, I was ready to do battle. I don't remember whether I shouted, "I'll fix you, you bastards!" or not, but as I poured the boiling water into the entrance, I know my heart was full of the animus of years of unprovoked attacks.

Then I placed a rock over the opening and stepped back. From the embankment came the buzz of the many-headed monster; I think the ground may have rumbled. But I realized, the hive was higher than the opening. I’d killed nothing, only provoked. So I retired from the field for the night, planning the next attack.

A long handled spade is a more emotionally gratifying battle tool than a tea kettle, and in the middle of the next day, with the hive population at its least, I placed the tip of the spade in the sod just above the place where the rumbling had been loudest the night before. Positioning my foot on the shovel, I lunged my weight into the earth, ripping through the sod and into the dirt below, and then I pushed the handle away from me to open the hole like a flap of skin. I jumped aside and as the shovel came out of the hole, so did a line of yellow jackets. They became a four foot globe of intersecting orbits over the nest. At nightfall, I was back with the kettle. The stream of boiling water hissed and smoked as it disappeared into the crack in the ground, and when it ended, I stomped the flap closed.

Next morning I removed the stone and waited, but nothing flew out. I grabbed the spade, opened the flap, and jumped back. Still nothing. Only silence. Then a single yellow jacket landed and stopped in front of the entrance hole. She began to scurry about as if lost. As I watched her, I thought again about the Beowulf epic, only this time not about Beowulf himself, but about a character called "The Last Survivor." A desolate and lonely figure, he laments, "My own people have been ruined in war; one by one they went down to death."

Then I killed that last yellow jacket with the rock. I had not anticipated such terrible victory.

CURWOOD: Tom Murphy lives in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania and teaches at Mansfield University.



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