My granddaughter is writing her first book. Here's how it starts: "I was born at 10:30 a.m. on June 18th, 2000. That's when the trouble began." If I were writing her book, I'd start with, "Last Friday afternoon my grandmother and I were chased by a swarm of yellowjackets." It started out with great innocence. We were going to the park to walk Bodhi the dog. Not one to waste water, on the way out the front door, I threw a pan of dishwater onto the rose bush next to us.
Ten seconds later, Patty was yelling that I had wasps all over me. By then my hands were covered. So was Bodhi. I grabbed the dog and yelled at Patty to step away from us as fast as she could. With little wasp bodies hanging off my left hand, I started pulling insect bodies off of Bodhi. In all he was stung seven times. For me, five. Children's Benadryl got him through the night. A shot of cooking sherry helped me to fall asleep somewhere around 4 a.m. It's one thing to deal with a simple sting. A hand's worth is the equivalent of having a hand caught in boiling water. I won't bother to describe the itching days. They weren't fun, but at least they were better than the burning.
Since then, war.
Hundreds of yellow jackets are living under the rose bush beside the front door. By this time of year, a good-sized nest can house between 600 and 800 of the little buggers. I'm sure that's about the size of our nest. And while I'm probably the only person I know who is fool enough to throw water on a bush without looking, I worry about the neighborhood kids who might want to sit on the two bright red outdoor reading chairs or the porch itself. If Bodhi the dog has to deal with another round of insect stings this year (It has not been a good summer), he will need serious dog therapy. As it is, he crawls to the front door when I ask him if he wants to go for a walk and then races to the street as soon as the door opens wide enough for him to pass.
While there are lots of ways to get rid of wasps, most of them have to do with pesticides or worse — kerosene, turpentine, rubbing alcohol. I could have called an exterminator, but that seemed too expensive. I knew, at worst, they'd be gone after the first freeze, the one that feels closer by the day. So I spent the week looking for and trying the following home-grown solutions suggested by fellow gardeners and friends.
Home-grown solution #1: When it gets dark, put a glass bowl over the nest. Nobody told me not to use a flashlight. I figured I had to cut the rosebush back first. Flashlight on. Seconds later, the sound of a yellowjacket's sentinel call. Seconds after that, a bloody swarm of hundreds of the little punks. I'm in a nightgown, wool plaid workshirt, and straw hat with a pink scarf pulled over my face. No matter. The correct response to the thunderous sound of oncoming wasps was to, once again, run my sweet self at the speed of light out into the street. I don't think any of the neighbors saw me since the police never appeared.
Night two: Having kept myself sting free, I threw on the same clothes. This time, sans flashlight, three rose bushes got trimmed back before sentinels screamed my arrival. I threw a huge white porcelain bowl over the whole mess and, once again, ran like hell. The next morning hundreds of yellowjackets waved good morning through the front window. On to new solutions.
Home-grown solution #2: A good friend asked about the wasps at work, a hospital that serves farmers, gardeners, and knowers of all things wasp. He got the same responses I had. Pesticides. Alcohol. Glass bowl. A new idea was to put a piece of decaying flesh — salmon is especially good — in a pan and then cover it with water and a slight oil slick. The wasps would be drawn to the smell and then drown in the water, caught by the oil. As a just-this-side-of-vegan vegetarian, except when I eat chicken at my son's house, the spoiled meat presented too much of a problem for the pan to work well.
Back to home-grown solution #1: It took two more tries to cut the bush back enough to lay the bowl flat over the entryway to Wasp Kingdom West. Once the bowl was in place, though, there was silence for a day or two ... until the yellow jackets burrowed out of the ground with a new entrance. As a last resort. I headed to Down-to-Earth for some diatomaceous earth. This "dirt" is really the exoskeletons of long-dead tiny sea creatures that are covered with sharp spines guaranteed to stab little insects to death. It had come to that.
What I came home with instead worked. The "wasp guy" talked me into buying Victor's Poison-Free Wasp and Hornet Killer. The active ingredient is mint oil. The only other ingredients are sodium lauryl sulfate, water, and carbon dioxide. That's it. I sprayed the hell out of the nest from twelve feet away and then watched.
A day later, four wasps. We can live with that.