Only a wasp

I went racing at Cheltenham on Friday, on what is called ‘Countryside  Day’.  My drive across the Cotswolds, often very beautiful at this time of year, was so misty that the autumn colours weren’t showing well at all.

As I passed over the railway at Adlestrop I remembered Edward Thomas’s poem but this was no day for blackbird song.

Apart from one small speculative losing bet I kept my money in my pocket until the last race where I thought that Cue Card had a very good chance but he jumped badly, and unseated early on, so I knew my fate and could head to the car park for an early get away as Grands Crus stormed impressively up the hill to the winning post.

There is a lot of Countryside Alliance activity at Cheltenham on Countryside Day, and it is mildly irritating to someone like me, who is not their greatest supporter.  I had a look at the assembled huntsmen and admired the hounds but the public address system seems to assume that everyone at the races to use their wits in the betting ring is fully committed to fox-hunting, and I am not.  Although, to be fair, I’ve never lifted a finger to oppose fox hunting either – privately or professionally.

As I made my getaway from the races I was wondering whether, on another day, Cue Card would be a good bet but as I drove up Cleeve Hill a small scene that occurred as I was viewing horses in the Parade Ring kept replaying in my mind.

I was standing next to a rather grim-looking man who was also looking at the circling horses.  A wasp flew past us and landed on the bark mulch in a flower bed next to us.  I looked at the wasp and, remembering the date, wondered whether that would be my last wasp of the year when the man next to me lashed out with his racecard and smacked the wasp before turning back to carry on looking at the runners for the next race.

I was quite impressed by his aim and his speed, but quite shocked, and a little troubled, at the instinctive nature of his action – see wasp, kill wasp.  This insect was not bothering us or anyone else, and would be dead soon in the natural scheme of things.  It wasn’t buzzing around his face or near a small child, it was a little behind us and would probably have headed off further if it had been left alone.  I was closer to this wasp than the man in question and there were many others nearby, although none was as interested as I in either the wasp or its attacker, and the man had to step across me to get at his intended victim.  This man, out to enjoy himself on Countryside Day, saw himself not as an interested and sympathetic observer of nature but rather, put himself in a position of self-appointed executioner.  I wanted to ask him why he felt entitled to behave in the way he had.

Would he have talked about ‘vermin’, ‘restoring natural balance’, the need for ‘management of natural populations’ or would he have told me that he just hated wasps,  that he just loved killing things or maybe that it was ‘only’ a wasp?  Obviously I do not know,  but his action seemed terribly callous to me.

This all happened on 11 November and there were poppies proudly worn everywhere.  Somewhere, we all have to draw a line on cruelty and death.  After all a wasp is ‘only’ a wasp, a blackbird is ‘only’ a blackbird, a fox is ‘only’ a fox, a racehorse is ‘only’ a racehorse, a soldier is ‘only’ a soldier, and a baby is ‘only’ a baby.

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23 Replies to “Only a wasp”

  1. Interesting piece. I too wonder what he would have said if you had asked. I can't bear it when people kill insects with total indifference but unfortunately it seems to be an acceptable form of ignorance doesn't it?

  2. I no longer point out wasps to people I would consider nature lovers. I remember talking to a member of the public while recruiting to a wildlife charity. He was wildlife aware, sympathetic, I thought, and I pointed out a wasp by his foot thinking he would avoid it. He stamped on it. I felt bad as the cause of the wasp's demise and couldn't understand why he did that. Great post. I judge a man by the respect he shows to all living things.

    1. Rebecca - maybe it was the same man! But probably not. And is it always men I wonder? My guess would be 'Not always but usually' - what do you think?

  3. And a Hen Harrier is only a Hen Harrier but for the last few weeks I have been privileged to watch them out of my window. When my neighbours kill them would I be right in taking them to the European Court for destroying my pleasure of living where I do as already one has gone missing on their land radio tracked down from Langholm!

    1. John - I hope your neighbours don't kill hen harriers but if they do, and there is the evidence, then they deserve everything they get. And those who kill hen harriers and other protected birds of prey are depriving you and others of pleasure through their selfish illegality.

  4. He obviously wasn't an organic farmer or grower - we rely on wasps to keep a natural balance over aphid pests etc. But couldn't agree more with your point: cruelty in any form is abhorrent, and symptomatic of a sick, unbalanced mind. I gave a talk recently to some 13 year old school kids on the importance of pollinators, and had been asked to explain the difference of wasps and bees. I explained that wasps are only interested in aphids and jam sandwiches and don't intend to sting people (but that hornets also eat baby bees). One of the bright kids asked "Well, if they kill bees and don't pollinate, shouldn't we try to kill them?" I was quite shocked and taken aback by this leap of assertion. I answered "Oh no, they are part of the balance of nature, and it's a very bad mentality to want to kill anything..." I waffled on a bit about how important wasps are to gardeners, but in my head I panicked that I shouldn't have explained the difference between wasps and hornets and bees to kids. Though the initial idea was to try to stop kids/humans wishing to kill everything that comes near them that buzzes.
    Do you have any advice for me next time I have to face a room full of kids (or older kids): What would be the best way to explain the situation re wasps/bees/hornets and their roles?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Sarah - welcome to this blog and thank you for a very interesting comment. I wonder whether readers of this blog have advice to offer you - I'll think about it too.

  5. Yes its is depressing to see the general mentality of people wishing to kill anything they think (usualy totally wrongly) might represent the slightest threat to them. This summer we had a wasp's nest in our roof just outside a bedroom window. All we did was to keep that particular window shut and the wasps were no bother at all. One could watch them now and again. I hope they had a good breeding season . When one sees a van labelled "Pest Control" one just wonders how often our wildlife is being destroyed needlessly. Some contol of, rats for example, will be needed, but often, I am sure general pest control such as the killing of wasps is totally unecessary.

  6. Umm, not too sure I can agree with the sentiments being expressed here, although in principle I can sympathize and would go along with the case against reckless and needless killing of any living being. My comment is based purely on personal and painful experiences! For no apparent reason I have been subjected to baseless and unprovoked attacks on numerous occasions by WASPS... be it on a cricket field, minding my own business, but of course paying attention to my role in the game, or simply trying to settle down to a nice book in the garden. Maybe it is just me that attracts such wanton savagery by this rather attractive insect, maybe chemically I am sending out the wrong signals, who knows? I can only ask for everyone's forgiveness for my wanting to swat and dispatch any of these yellow and black crusaders that have the misfortune to come anywhere near me! Sorry for that.

  7. Every time I send an email about wasps I get bombarded with Google ads for pest controllers, in the same way as every time I send an email about moths I get bombarded with ads for clothes-moth killing devices. Clearly, the best way to make money from wildlife is to kill it.

    I think there is a more general issue with successful wildlife as well. A large chunk of humanity doesn't like it when wildlife is declining or going extinct, but another large chunk of humanity doesn't like it when wildlife is too numerous either (I wonder how much overlap there is between these two groups of humans?). I've seen complaints about 'plagues' of magpies, dandelions, starlings, craneflies - there are often calls to 'cull' whichever species seems to be doing well at any given moment.

    And then conservationists don't always like to see lots of deer or various invasive plants either, so the situation is by no means straightforward. There are plenty of situations in which (some) humans deem it necessary to kill (some) wildlife, hopefully with some thought having gone into why it is necessary. But swatting random wasps does seem particularly pointless.

  8. As you know, courtesy of Twitter, I was stung in the head by a wasp last week and grew another head as a result of the subsequent reaction! But I didn't kill the offending beast, mainly, to be honest, because it made a swift get away. To be fair I would have been very reluctant to dispatch it because it's an attitude I have to wild things. Regrettably this has earned me (and I suspect others will have been branded the same) the label of bunny hugger and other similar terms involving hugging our native flora and fauna. I have never hugged a bunny and am not that sentimental about wildlife that I would and I'm guessing that applies to all who value life for it's own sake rather than out of said sentimentality.

  9. What a thoughtful blog Mark and lots of nice comments that have to agree with all of it except one who obviously fears them perhaps with in his view good cause.Think the two sexes are probably evenly matched in the case of killing or not killing wasps.Think I enjoyed that blog more than any of previous approx 500 I must have read,perhaps that means I am a addict or worse.

    1. Dennis - I'm very glad you enjoyed that one, I will try hard to get you another good one in fewer than the next 500! Thank you.

  10. I help my wasps in my garden by having Marsh Cinquefoil growing in my borders. It self seeds and spreads well. The flowers are not what you call 'garden' flowers but only the wasps pollinates them and it is great to see a species enjoying your efforts to give them a space in this world. If only the majority of people 'gardened for wildlife' what a lot of Honey Buzzards we might see!

  11. Lovely piece, I enjoyed reading it very much.
    I've always been astonished by the hysteria that erupts at the sight of a wasp... and yes, I have been stung a few times. Still I am a staunch defender of the wasp. Most people seem to think this borders on insanity.
    Last year, wasps took up residence in the sash box of our bedroom window, which we always leave open a few inches. I was so impressed by their cunning choice of home, and by the fact I could lie in bed with my morning cup of tea being entertained by their industry, that we left them to it. By mid-summer they had completely chewed through the hemp part of the sash cord. I thought the nylon core would prove too chewy for them... but no. The whole sash cord went, so I had to prop the lower window open with a shoe. I still couldn't bear to poison them, so when summer activity built up to the point where they were taking a determined interest in my morning cups of tea, we put some clear polythene over the gap to stop the maverick wasps flying inwards, and let them carry on. I knew they would die when it turned colder and the new queens move on, and indeed we saw a few of the 'princesses' set forth with a drunken flying motion. So Nae bother, as my Scottish friend Carol would say.

    This year, there was a wasp's nest in a hole above the front door. I like to think it was one of last year's new queens that founded the 2011 nest, and that there will be one around the house next year, too.
    I say, make friends with the stripey ones. Apart from my sash cord, they did no harm.

  12. Whoops Mark,didn't mean that there were not other good ones just that this blog I thought said a lot about you and think I saw the person who is a real nature lover as opposed to prolific blogger and book writer.Each person obviously has different preferences and OH absolutely loved your USA blogs whereas for me they were not as much to my likeing as all your others.By the way your losing bet is trained just down the road and we sold our milk through the same milk group,think it is a very good horse but very inexperienced.

  13. Another wasps' nest anecdote. I, too, made sure a nest survived last summer in our garden shed, despite the entreaties of the rest of the family and despite getting stung myself (foolishly clearing out the gutter near the nest) and the dog getting stung too (she slept in the shed). There was another nest this summer, in the cavity wall - the wasps had borrowed in through some soft concrete. This survived too.

    Cheltenham improved on Saturday - I encountered no wasp murderers, there was lovely sunshine but no winners and no new species for the Cheltenham list either.

  14. Interesting piece Mark. My parents stayed over a few weeks back, and informed me one morning that they'd killed a big wasp that had been buzzing in their room that night. Demanding to see the evidence, I found it was a hornet. These often come into our house in late autumn, and after giving them some sugar water to pep them up, and spending a few minutes admiring them, I set them free. I could have shot them both there and then - the killing without question instinct quite frankly disgusts me, and you're right, such mindsets can easily slide up the spectrum towards other, really quite horrific behaviours and disregard for life. My parents for heavens sake! I don't hold out much hope for behaviour change in your grim 'friend' though - it's hard to know where to start really. Perhaps you should have popped a wasp under his hat as he left, but I suspect that would only result in more dead wasps. It's a human sickness - a mental disorder allowed to develop as we've become increasingly detached from nature.


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