My wife and I recently renovated the deck behind our house as part of an epic house-lifting, to prevent the Esopus Creek from flooding us. Now we have a spacious wooden platform – complete with pergola! – the length of our double-wide trailer. And what’s our deck’s finest decorative touch? A hornet’s nest. It’s about three inches wide, in a corner of the rafters of the pergola, and resembles a minimalist ceramic pot. Through a hole in the bottom, insects exit and enter. This insect-built architecture is more aesthetically gratifying that all our deck chairs and folding tables combined.
Like a tribe of hippies living in a dome, hornets prefer a round home. And like flower children, they are peaceful. The hornets never hurt us. If anything, they assist us by eating troublesome insects including caterpillars, grasshoppers, bees. (They also consume sweet fruit and tree sap.) The idiom “mad as a hornet” does not apply to our non-paying tenants (luckily for us, because hornets can sting numerous times, unlike honeybees, who have only one sting per incarnation).
Hornets are social creatures, like humans. They belong to the insect family Vespidae, along with yellowjackets and wasps. They are the largest creatures in their family. All the hornets in our nation are the same species: the European Hornet (except for the Asian “murder hornets” you may have read about, which have lately invaded the West Coast). Hornets were “accidentally” introduced to our continent in the 19th century.
These winged wonders usually build their hives in an elevated place protected from the rain and wind. The hives are extremely fragile, made from regurgitated wood – a kind of insectival papier-mâché. (That’s why ours is under the pergola; one rainstorm could wipe it out.) Inside these paper-thin walls 700 creatures can coexist, in neat hexagonal cells, serving their egg-laying queen. That’s roughly the population of my town, Phoenicia.
Have you ever lived with roommates, and noticed how you silently negotiate the common rooms? In the same way, my wife and I have developed patterns of movement with our hornet cohorts. If a winged creature and I reach a doorway at the same time, I step aside. The hornet, I have noticed, usually nods in gratitude.
On a Tuesday one of the hive-dwellers collided with me in the hallway – and flew into my hair. We had a moment of mutual panic, until the airborne insect extricated himself and flew away, shaking off dandruff.
But they are strange-looking creatures. A hornet resembles two pairs of broken binoculars.
The Hornets, in case you didn’t know (and I didn’t) are an NBA team – that means basketball – based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The team was founded in 1985, but the name belonged to a minor-league Charlotte baseball squad that was launched in 1901! The origins of the insect totem stretch back to Charlotte’s fiery resistance to British occupation during the Revolutionary War, which prompted the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, to refer to the town as “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion.” Hornets, then, are a symbol of political revolution. Far be it for me to eject a cadre of revolutionaries from my back porch – especially if they’re not fighting me.
Once a year, my friend Charlie comes up from South Orange, New Jersey to visit for a weekend. I agonized over whether to mention the hornet’s nest. Charlie might be appalled, and refuse to come. On the other hand, is it ethical to withhold this potentially crucial information? Charlie usually loves to sit on the deck…
After weeks of indecision, I chickened out. Charlie arrived, unwarned, sat on the deck – but he chose a chair in the sun, to work on his tan. The hornets remain almost exclusively beneath the pergola. In three long days, Charlie never noticed them. Thank you, kindly hive-builders!
But hornets are not our only potential threats. Bee balm and echinacea blooming in the front yard, in Violet’s “wild garden,” attract bees – so our house is a mecca for stinging insects. Plus we have snakes in the lawn! Let’s face it, my wife and I are as fearless as James Bond.
Do you know the expression “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”? Possibly I will be stung by a hornet before I finish this essay, and completely reverse my laissez-faire philosophy. (In any case, the hornets will all die in the autumn, except for the fertilized queen, who hibernates till spring.)
Looking through a file of my poems, I found this one:
Art Project #907
Live with bees until you learn their language.
Teach it to your nieces and nephews.
Bees perform dances to communicate the location of local flowers to their comrades. The “waggle” dance indicates the distance and direction from the hive of a local flower bed. The “circle” dance reveals that a fragrant flower is nearby. But do hornets dance?
According to 2018 study by Benjamin Taylor of LaGuardia Community College, wasps (which include hornets) perform “gastral drumming” – that is, they rhythmically slap their abdomens against the nest, producing sounds that signify the presence of local food.
Hornets nests are valuable in traditional Chinese medicine. The hives are are collected in the autumn and winter, steamed to remove dead insects and nest eggs, then dried in the sun. The powder of the nest can be added to wine to treat malignant tumors, rheumatoid arthritis, lung diseases, skin disorders, urinary conditions and dental ailments. If you’d like to turn my nest into medicine, contact me c/o this newspaper.
[Update: I have not yet been stung. I’m still a “hornet liberal.”]
Sparrow is a writer living in Phoenicia whose latest book, Small Happiness & Other Epiphanies, a collection of essays, poetry, and humor, will be published October 13 by Monkfish Book Publishing Company in Rhinebeck.