A Run-in with a Paper Wasp

This post is the unedited version of ‘Lessons from a paper wasp’, an article for ‘Rooting For Nature’, my monthly column in Deccan Herald. The published column is linked here.

The fence marking our boundary and our little cottage on Navilu Kaadu natural farm are powered by solar electricity. The mildly electrified fence keeps grazing goats, cattle, and idle humans from straying in, though there has been a break-in in the early days, when a few unscrupulous sorts managed to smash open the solar battery case mounted right by the fence.

They made away with the battery and a couple of 200-litre barrels in our absence. We have since secured the solar battery powering our fence in a nook behind the cottage.

We routinely clear the fence of bush and bramble to keep the voltage from dropping.

I have mixed feelings about clearing the overgrowth along our fence, as these uncleared patches of vegetation make for cosy habitats and nesting sites for birds, lizards, skinks, insects, snakes and more.

We are forced to de-weed the area though, to keep the voltage high enough to deliver a harmless jolt to intruders from the human realm, even as fauna of the untamed variety effortlessly hop, slither, crawl and fly in and out, over or between gaps in the fence.

Image credit: Chaudhary Roman (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Encounters with Navilu Kaadu’s wild dwellers isn’t uncommon, but more likely while clearing the fence.

On one such occasion, Siddhappa the farmhand clearing the fence called out to me urgently. I had just then walked back to the cottage after supervising the clearing for a bit. I trudged back reluctantly. The man sounded anxious.

Pointing towards a shrub, he said we had to smoke out the ‘KaNajada Goodu’. On closer inspection, I spotted a paper wasp nest. These wasps get their name from the papery texture of their nesting material. They scrape and chew wood and plant fibre to produce this material. The nest resembles an upturned parasol, hence the alias ‘umbrella wasps.’

Now paper wasps are nature’s own bio-control agents and keep pests under control in farms and gardens. But this particular nest was in an overgrown shrub of Lantana camara, the aggressively invasive species choking India’s forests and countryside.

Much as I wanted to leave the area undisturbed, we had no choice but to clear it, to stem the spread of lantana along the fence, but not before the wasps delivered a life lesson.

In my eagerness to have the nest removed with little harm to the hive or the wasps, I asked Siddhappa to chop off the branches around the nest before tackling the entire bush, so the limb with the nest attached could be moved to safety. Wise old Siddhappa offered his counsel — smoking the wasps out was the only way to do it, he said

I had other novel ideas to take the wasp nest to safety, or so I thought. I had done this earlier – picked up a dried-up agave leaf with a seemingly dead snake in its fold, and deposited it beyond our boundary to allay fears among farmhands.

We realized later that the snake was the venomous saw-scaled viper, known for its irritable and aggressive disposition. A wasp nest wasn’t nearly as deadly, I conjectured.

A saw-scaled viper coiled in a dry agave leaf

I then proceeded to insert my right arm into the bush to untangle the chopped branch from the rest of it.

In the blink of an eye, blistering pain ratcheted through my right forearm. A paper wasp, enraged at this deliberate intrusion on its territory, had delivered a painful sting at Mach speed. Neither me nor Siddhappa saw the stinging wasp.

The area around the knuckle at the base of my right index finger swelled-up in an instant and turned a shade of deep pink. While the pain subsided soon enough, the swelling took a while to recede. Siddhappa too suffered stings to his lower lip and hand when attempting to chop the shrub.

Wasp stings can cause severe allergic reactions and is potentially fatal for some people. Luckily for us, neither Siddappa nor I fell under that category.

I have since wised-up to the potentially deadly consequences of similarly foolhardy actions and am now less prone to imprudence and bravado of this sort.