Saturday, October 3, 2009

In which we find yellowjackets the hard way, and choose deadly action

One of the stories I like to tell school kids is the old Ashanti tale of Anansi and Nyamé, in which Anansi agrees to perform three impossible tasks in order to win the magical box containing all the stories of the world.

The kids listen attentively to the story of how Anansi tricks Osebo the leopard of the terrible teeth,and also Mwatia, the fairy whom men never see, but they are always fascinated with the part where Anansi approaches the buzzing nest of Mmboro the hornets who sting like fire.

(the entire story is located online here; it is slightly different than the version I tell, but it's essentially the same story. If you want to hear me telling my version, tune into 90.7fm Everett on Sunday morning, October 4th around 9:30am, also available online at )

Kids--even city kids--understand the bravery needed to cope with stinging insects.

I tend to be pretty nonchalant about bees but I'm a trifle more focussed on the topic of stings (and bites) today because I'm typing this today with icepacks taped to both hands.

I found the yellowjacket nest months ago, in July, while Willy and I were building a stretch of fence near the manure pile. I found the nest in the usual manner--I got stung. Dang, that hurt.

I dropped the fence I was working on and raced for the house to take some benedryl and put an icepack on the sting--I'm not overly worried about anaphylactic shock, but the sting site started swelling immediately and I don't mess around with stuff like that. Twenty minutes later I was back, working on the fence and stepping much more daintily.

As long as we stayed five feet away from the hole in the ground, they didn't bother us, so we re-routed a little bit of the fence and went on with our lives.


Yesterday, while dumping manure on the pile, the goats (who were "helping" with the chore as they often do, by trying to leap in and out of the wheelbarrow, gnawing on my clothes, and generally inviting me to laugh at their silly selves) trampled over the nest--and the bugs attacked. Lupin was covered in stinging, biting yellowjackets, Dobbie had several on his ears, and I got stung and bit on my hands. We ran. The yellowjackets held on and kept stinging and biting. We slapped, jumped, cussed and (in Dobbie's case) rolled in the mud.

Having escaped the bugs at last, I retreated to the house and did some research. (I know I'm a nerd. What did you expect from a librarian--especially a graduate of the library school at Emporia State University, home of the Fighting Hornets?)

Here's what I learned about yellowjackets a.k.a. Vespula vulgaris (even the latin name for them sounds like a sound effect from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, doesn't it?):

Some people (mad scientists, I suppose) think that yellowjackets are tremendously cool. One enthusiast refers to yellowjackets and other social insects as " one of evolutions most magnificent, successful and instructive developments."*

Harumph. Has he ever been stung by a bunch of them, I wonder?

(I do not find them magnificent at all. I think they are a pain in the, uh, fingers. However, I will grant that they are, from a safe distance, kind of interesting.)

Yellowjackets are considered eusocial, or "true social" insects, and they exhibit the three key traits of true social insects:

1. They have a reproductive division of labor. Individual queens are fertile and reproduce. The workers are sterile or semisterile--they either don't reproduce or reproduce to a far lesser extent.

2. The workers perform tasks to benefit the colony, and in particular cooperatively rear the young.

3. They have a "society" with more than one adult generation coexisting in the colony.

Huh. Who knew?

Nests are typically begun in spring by a single queen, who overwinters and becomes active when the weather gets warm. She emerges in early spring to feed and start a new nest.

The nest grows from spring to midsummer, and the larvae require lots of protein, which is usually other insects but might also be unfortunate humans or goats who pass too close to the nest. In late summer, the colony grows more slowly and requires large amounts of sugar to maintain the queen and workers, so foraging yellowjackets mostly look for rotting fruit and other sources of sugar.**

So, what about getting rid of these nasty creatures?

Many sources recommend NOT getting rid of yellowjacket nests, citing the bugs' insect-destroying habits blah blah blah, and then usually say that mid-summer is the best time to destroy a nest if it really must go away. Once the weather gets colder, the bugs don't fly as well, food becomes more scarce, and the nest itself begins to disintegrate.

However, it's the transition phase--i.e. right now--that the bugs are cold, hungry, and cranky, They won't die of the cold for at least another month, and I'm tired of icepacks.


To get rid of a nest safely, wait until nightfall when the yellowjackets are sluggish and cold.

With a can (or two) of bugspray (Jim chose a permethrin spray product that shoots the powder 20 to 40 feet) spray from far away as you approach the nest. The powder will coat the bugs' wings as they emerge from the hole, and they will die.

Alternately, you can approach the hole after dark (and hopefully when it's really cold, so they don't come out to investigate you) and place a clear glass bowl over the hole.*** The bugs will be confused by their inability to leave the space under the bowl and continue to try to fly out rather than dig another tunnel to escape.

Because Jim is one of those guys who figures "why use 4 nails when 8 nails will do," he chose tospray poison and then coat the inside of a clear glass bowl with poison and put the bowl over the hole.

If I were a nicer person, I'd probably feel sorry for the yellowjackets. I guess there's some pretty strong evidence about me not being nice, and I'm good with that.

Lacking niceness, I shall at least cite my sources:

* Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. Ed. Michael Hutchins, Arthur V. Evans, Jerome A. Jackson, Devra G. Kleiman, James B. Murphy, Dennis A. Thoney, et al. Vol. 3: Insects. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p67-73.

**Pest Notes: Yellow and other social wasps, UC ANR Publication 7450

*** THE STING; Yellow jackets can make their presence known very painfully Anonymous. The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta, Ga.: Jul 17, 2009. pg. B.3

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In which the Minerva Louises are mostly grown-up ladies now

Remember this little cutie?

It's been about five months since this picture was taken, and in that time our hens have Grown Up.

Given that the hens look very much alike (which is why we named them all "Minerva Louise", since we can't tell them apart anyhow), it is difficult to say for sure that the chick pictured above is the same bird as the hen pictured below......but surely you understand why I think that they are, in fact, the same bird.
The size and color of a hen's comb indicates her status, i.e. the level of bossiness you can expect from her. Some of our hens have combs so large that the top edge is beginning to flop over, much like large Texas Hair towards the end of a strenuous prom night. These are also the fattest of our Ladies. These largest, brightest-colored hens are the Alpha hens, the chickens who, if they were human, would dominate discussions at the PTA and the Sunday School planning committee.

At feeding time, the hens with the largest tiaras are waiting at the door, ready to trample any of their smaller-crowned sisters on the way through the lunch line.

If these hens were ladies, they would be the bringers of the largest, sweetest, most elaborate cupcakes for kindergarten birthdays, and the drivers of the most heavily-bumper-stickered minivan in the entire lot at Costco, and the ladies who push to the front of the line at those predawn after-Thanksgiving sales at the mall.

That would be these large-combed hens, if only we would allow them to drive.

They cackle the loudest, and hop the highest, and always claim to have laid the largest eggs in the nest box.

The smaller-combed hens are much more reticent.

These small-crowned hens aren't as flashy as their sisters, but they are the chickens most likely to catch a mosquito, should the bug be foolish enough to fly into the chicken tractor. The small-combed hens know that they are second-class citizens, but they also know that the food here is plentiful,

...and while the larger birds are off in a corner squabbling over a some delicious dainty, there will be lots of tomato stems and zucchini seeds and corncobs left to stuff into their somewhat smaller faces.

We think that all hens, regardless of the size and brilliance of the tiara, are beautiful. Most beautiful of all, of course, are the eggs they give us each day.

Some days there are three eggs, some days there are six. Last Sunday there were eight! All the eggs are beautiful, and delicious, and we are grateful to have them.


Minerva Twelve's injuries from her various "digging out" adventures were ugly. She scraped not only the feathers and hide off of her head while trying to escape one afternoon, she actually debrided her flesh all the way down to her skull on the top of her head. It was a very ugly injury, and we had low expectations for her ability to survive, especially since she continued to dig out and escape from St Hens every few days, thus making herself more vulnerable to attack by foxes, coyotes and hawks.

We figured that infection would get her if the owls didn't get her first.

So far, we figured wrong. After nearly a month, Twelve's injuries are steadily healing.

Her skin is regrowing, and there's quite a lot less bare skull visible on top of her head. She is still living in St Hens with a very mild, small-combed hen we call Eleven. Eleven is always waiting for the food bucket in the mornings, and most days Twelve will stay caged long enough to breakfast with her gentle friend.

Life is good, for us and for our Minervas.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In which we get excited about the *NEW* Washington State Horse Park

Horselovers all over Washington State are a-flutter with excitement: after nearly 20 years (!) of dreaming, screaming, and scheming, the very first Washington State Horse Park is actually on the trail to becoming a reality.

This weekend there was a big celebration, and we went to take a look.


The new park is located barely a mile off Highway 90...not 15 miles down a rutted logging road, or up a steep hill into a tiny parkinglot, but rather just barely outside the mountain town of Cle Elum, Washington. In a state divided down the middle by a mountain range that separates Swamplanders on the west side from DrySiders on the east side, the central location is ideal, and I applaud the forward-thinkers who located this piece of property for the Park.
When we arrived, we were waved into a large parking area under the powerlines. This is apparently only temporary parking--we located the real parking area on the map. It will be huge, with plenty of room for big rigs.

We were transported to the site of the festivities by haywagon
...which gave us an opportunity to look around.
SECOND THING THAT I LOVE: It's very pretty here!
Arriving at the "vendor's alley", we were able to shop our way to the food tent. Clearly, the organizers know about the weaknesses of horse people. Ooooooh, artwork! And books! And leather stuff!

The whole concept of cross-disciplinary education is going to be an important theme at the park, as demonstrated at the roping area, where this little girl in jodpurs spent at least an hour working on her roping skills.

The guys joined her there ...and got pretty good at getting the loops to go where they intended them to go
...the stock they practiced on was pretty forgiving, which helped a lot.
With a firm hand on my arm (and my credit card) Jim guided me to the lunch tent, catered by Suncadia Resort.
Fabulous food (free!) provided by the resort that donated the land to the horse park. I didn't get a good photo of the barbequed chicken/pulled pork/brisket table or the amazing potato salads or the huge cookies or free beer, but I carefully explored all the corners of the tables. Suncadia is showing a clear intention to be my favorite kind of a good neighbor.

The welcoming ceremony consisted of a bunch of happy people congratulating each other. Hooray! It's really going to happen!

Leslie Thurston is the Executive Director of the WSHP Foundation.
My impression: Leslie is a very efficient person having a very giddy day. Who could blame her? We were all rather giddy.

Cle Elum Mayor Charles Glondo was onhand to congratulate his city's newest neighbor. The City has extended a 99-year lease to the horse park, for $1 per year. They didn't even insist that the $99 be paid all at once, and have happily agreed to take payments for it. His Honor is a fine fellow in a fine hat.

The crowd was gratifyingly diverse. Scattered among the various kinds of cowboys were dressage riders, 3-day-eventers, hunter jumpers, vaulters, theraputic riding instructors, and trail riders of all stripes.

THIRD THING THAT I LOVE: The mission of the park is to serve all the horse disciplines in Washington State--not an simple task. They will eventually build indoor, outdoor, and grass arenas, round pens, and a cross-country jumping course, as well as huge horse barns and lots of parking for horse rigs.
And access to trails? Oh yes! We talked to one of the rangers from the Cle Elum Ranger District, and she knows what endurance riders want. She even did a Ride and Tie with her husband at the Mt Adams Endurance Ride in 2007. Hooray, hooray, hooray!!!!

It's not built yet, of course.

We took the walking tour, and discovered that you can only tell that the "Park" isn't part of the adjacent wilderness
because they've punched in a few 2-lane jeep tracks and stuck a couple of signs in the ground, showing where stuff will be when it's all finished.

The Park is asking horse people to JOIN. The membership money is needed to get the infrastructure in place, and also because many members = much more influence when legislators get involved with state funding.

The Park has an FAQ page that I found very helpful.

FOURTH THING THAT I LOVE: Talking to people at the event also made me hopeful that this location could easily be a ridecamp for an endurance event before many of the park facilities are "finished", since endurance riders require very little in the way of amenities--give us a flat place to park and access to water and a bunch of trail, and we will be happy.

A new ride site for 2010? It could really happen!