by Jessica Aouati
Through connecting with an animal relative, in this case, the wasp, Jessica learns about their world and about herself, as we will do in the upcoming Berlin workshop. Please enjoy her tale.
Paper wasp n. Any of various vespid wasps, especially those in the genus Polistes, that build small, umbrella-shaped papery nests from chewed wood pulp.
Have you ever seen a wasp fan its wings over a larvae on a hot summer day? It’s a fine sight. The wasps perform this task, so entomologists say, to maintain favorable breeding temperatures within the comb’s hexagonal brood cells. To me, they were simply cooling off their young. Tenderly. Caringly. Lovingly. But I’m anthropomorphizing, aren’t I? Oh dear, that worst of ethological sins.
I’ve always had an affinity for insects; the winged ones, in particular. Growing up, I was told that bees, wasps and ladybugs were bringers of good fortune. I happily believed these tales; mostly, however, I just loved the way they looked, the way they felt on my skin, crawling on the back of my hand and arm.
A few years ago, some wasps decided to build their nest underneath our patio table. An auspicious occurrence, I thought, not least because I’d been practicing Carlos Castaneda’s Tensegrity Volume 3 at the time, which depicts a winged insect that looks like a bee or wasp on its cover1. I welcomed the wasps, and thanked them for taking up residence on our balcony. The comb grew. Eggs were laid. Larvae developed. All was well.
Until one day, the idyll was shattered. I was sitting at my desk, looking out the patio window, when the wasps suddenly circled the nest in a fluster. Clearly, something was wrong. I walked outside to investigate, and gasped: It was a raid. The nest was crawling with ants. A thick trail of them was marching across the patio and up the table leg. They had taken over the comb; were attacking the larvae. The wasps looked on, frantic and helpless. I tried to blow the intruders off, to remove them by hand. In vain; there were too many. I reached for the hose as a last resort, hoping to wash off their trail. But the paper nest got wet and fell to the ground, where the ants finished it off.
I was mortified. Not only had I been unable to help the wasps, but I’d assisted in the very destruction of their nest. I looked at them, buzzing all around me, and expressed my deepest regrets. I didn’t want them to leave, and assured them that I’d protect them in the future if they stayed.
To my surprise, they did. This time, they chose our potted citrus tree as their new building site. When construction began off one of the branches, I thanked them candidly, and reiterated my promise to protect them any way I could. Again, the comb grew. Eggs were laid. Larvae developed. By now, a dozen wasps were tending the nest. And again, the ants came back.
This time, however, I was prepared. I was at the computer when it happened, and had kept a small paint brush on my desk ever since the first attack. The moment I saw the wasps lift off in panic, I grabbed it and ran outside.
The ants had already taken over the comb. With the wasps buzzing all around me, I went to work: Quickly, but ever so gently so as not to destroy the fragile comb again, I brushed off the ants one by one. Then, using long, soft strokes, for I did not want to hurt the ants either, I tackled the trail: Brush, brush, along the branch, up and down the trunk, the pot, the floor; brush, brush, here and there, top and bottom, as fast as I could. But still the ants kept coming, and I needed to focus on the comb again. Some wasps had started pulling the larvae—there were five of them—out of their cells to helicopter them away. It was a time-consuming endeavor. Worse yet, the larvae were heavy, and the first wasp dropped dangerously close to the floor when it took off. I held out my hand, breaking its fall, supporting it from below as it strove to fly back up. Where to? I asked as it carried on laboriously. The balcony railing, it looks like? Okay. And I tiptoed along, my palm pushing up a larvae that was being helicoptered off by a wasp. When the wasp released its precious cargo, back I went. One by one, we carried them over, hand and wasp acting in unison, until all five larvae were sitting on the railing, safe and sound.
Still, I had more brushing to do. The main threat over, I proceeded to clearing every nook and cranny of the now empty comb. At last, the ants retreated, and soon the last intruder was gone. Time to bring the kids back home. I went to the railing, where the wasps struggled with their load once more. And this time, my hand not only supported them on their way back, it also served as a tray from which they stuffed the larvae back up into their cells. What a sight we must have been.
With the kids neatly tucked in again, the wasps finally settled down on the comb. I leaned back into a chair, contemplating the encounter. I was satisfied, yes, and happy, but in a strangely child-like, dispassionate manner, for I didn’t think much of my experience at all. On the contrary, it all seemed like the most natural thing in the world; I had helped some friends and that was it. The ants were gone, fortunately unharmed (at least as far as I could tell) and the wasps and their young were sheltered and secure. Life was good.
Or was it? In absolute synchronicity, the wasps suddenly took off and came straight for me. I was wearing shorts and a tank top at the time, and the prospect of getting stung—a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind until then—suddenly became frightfully real. I squinted my eyes reflexively, expecting the worst. This is it. It’s gonna hurt. Go ahead. I get it. You’re stressed out.
But then—I felt them. One by one, they landed on me. On my arms, my face, my legs, my shoulders. I was so surprised that I opened my eyes. Gently, slowly, they crawled on my skin in small circles. It was delightful. And then, all at once, they fanned their wings. Tenderly. Caringly. Lovingly. And for a timeless moment, I felt nothing but love: My love for them, and their love for me.
And then, just like that, they flew back to their nest. You’re welcome, I thought as I stood up and walked inside. I was feeling strangely complete, and knew why: I had rekindled a long-lost kinship. Wasps and humans—two realms, one life. A bridge called love.
But I’m anthropomorphizing again, aren’t I? Well. Happily so.
1Tensegrity® Volume 3 concerns itself with the crossing from one awareness of vibratory force—the Chordata phylum, to which humans belong—into another awareness of vibratory force—the Arthropoda phylum, which groups insects and arachnids, among others.
Jessica Aouati is a writer, translator, foreign language instruction content developer, and lifelong friend of insects. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and Frankfurt.