from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 12, 2001
PEARS, SCYTHING & YELLOWJACKETS
Exactly as the fig harvest petered out, the pears began dropping, so this week each morning my first job has been to collect pears and take them to Kathy the plantation manager. Last year we had almost no pears because in spring a late frost nipped nearly all the flowers, but this year every tree is heavy with fruit, some branches simply overwhelmed with them. Some pears are big as cantaloupes, and when I bite into them the juice mats my beard, but I don't care.
Tall grass and blackberry brambles had grown up beneath the pear trees so before I could decently collect the crop I had to do some scything.
Now, scything is something beautiful to me. You probably know that a scythe consists of a long, curved blade at the end of a handle about five feet long, and that the handle is curved in a special way. It's the implement carried by Grandfather Time. I feel very fortunate to have been taught the basics of the art of scything when I lived in Belgium, by a fellow who, when he had been a shepherd in Normandy, had learned from an old scything master.
Scything across a field of tall grass, having your rhythm going, seeing the tall grass collapsing evenly where it should, and leaving a clean swath behind you is a form of mediation, a sort of communion with the Earth and the seasons few people experience nowadays, though at one time scything was a basic agricultural task in many of the world's economies. Unfortunately at Laurel Hill I do not have a blade meant for tall grass, nor do I need to cut much tall grass, but still with my shorter-bladed "briar-scythe" I can recall my earlier classical scything in Belgian meadows.
So I was scything short passageways through tall grass between trees and I felt my blade slice into a hill of dirt. I figured it was just a fireant hill and continued. But then something bulletlike zapped my right ear, I felt little legs tangling in my hair and beard, and I knew instantly that I'd scythed into a yellowjacket hill.
I was lucky that most of the yellowjackets tangled in my hair and stung the bandana around my head keeping sweat from my eyes, for I managed to get away with only that one sting on the ear. The ear was puffy for a couple of days and it hurt like the dickens.
Despite the pain I remain a fan of yellowjackets. Yellowjackets are members of the Vespid Wasp family, and along with hornets they belong to the subfamily Vespinae. In other words, yellowjackets and hornets are closely related wasps, and neither of them are bees. Bees and wasps are very different kinds of insects. Yellowjackets and hornets have slender "waspish" waists while honeybees are thick-waisted. Yellowjackets are smaller than honeybees, and have a good bit of yellow on them. Hornets are larger and blacker, with only a little yellowish-white on them. Both yellowjackets and hornets carry a wallop in their sting.
Our yellowjackets (there are different kinds) live in colonies of 500-5000 individuals. The usual yellowjacket home is an underground nest like I scythed into, but also they've been known to nest in wall voids and other above-ground locations. When their nests are disturbed, sentry wasps fly out and begin stinging. Their venom contains an "alarm substance" which alerts other wasps that more stinging needs to be done, so once you've been stung it's a good idea to move out of the area.
I got away fast without thinking too hard on it, leaving the scythe where it fell. The next morning I returned to retrieve the scythe and to my astonishment a decent cloud of yellowjackets was still active above the decapitated nest. Four days later, however, the cloud had disappeared, though a few individual wasps were still buzzing about.
As summer ends and cool weather comes, yellowjackets become even more aggressive than they are now. One reason for that may be that the individual wasps don't have much to loose by getting into a fight, for when cold weather really arrives they will all die, except for the queen. Only the queen will survive winter, and then next spring she will find a new place and begin the colony all over again in a new nest.
Everyone knows that yellowjackets come uninvited to picnics and cluster around glasses of sweet iced-tea. Often in town yellowjackets are spotted flying around hedges. They are searching for other kinds of insects and arthropods, such as spiders, which they eat.
There's a very fine Web site in Canada describing yellowjacket social structure, mating habits, prey capture, etc. at http://aci.mta.ca/Courses/Biology/3451/lauralee/social.html
GARDEN SPIDER & WASPS
For a couple of weeks a large Garden Spider has taken over one corner of my outside kitchen. Garden Spiders are those HUGE black-and-yellow spiders who in late summer gardens and roadsides catch our attention because from back foot to front foot they are over 2 inches long! If you're unsure which spider I'm referring to, there are pictures at
Actually, only the female gets over 2 inches long. The male is less than a third as large. Males build smaller webs on the outer edges of the female's web. A couple of males are orbiting around my kitchen's big female as I write this. A good description of web-building and other aspects of this spider's natural history is given at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/argiope/a._aurantia$narrative.html
The female's web is even more attention-getting than the spider herself. The central part of the web spans about 2 feet, and away-leading lines attach to objects several feet away. One of the most curious things about the web is that in the very center the spider creates a mass of zigzagging white threads, which is very eye-catching. This construction is called a stabiliment, and no one knows what purpose it serves. Probably the best theory is that it keeps birds from flying through the web.
I was very happy to see this Garden Spider in my kitchen. For one thing, she happened to build right next to a paper-wasp nest, the denizens of which had already plugged me several times.
Now, most paper-wasp species won't sting unless you really harass them, but around Natchez we have a species I never saw while living in Kentucky, and this one has caused me a lot of grief. It is amber-colored and it will sting even if you do no more than walk by, and it's a good sting, too, one that throbs for a long while. Usually as soon as I see this wasp's paper nests I remove them, for if they are left they'll be enlarged and soon support sizable colonies of stingers. However, the nest the spider was next to was inside a hollow giant bamboo holding up the corrugated tin sheets of my kitchen's roof, so I've been unable to remove it.
On the first morning of my new Garden Spider's occupancy she caught 7 amber-colored paper wasps, the next day 3, and during subsequent days she caught one or two each day. Now she's wiped out the entire wasp colony.
Actually, I have mixed feelings about this. For, the first summer I was here a small paper nest of these wasps was established right outside the screen window where I read in the evening. I could watch these wasps' every move from just a couple of inches away. For several weeks I watched the wasps enlarge their nest with more cells, and I watched as they cared for and groomed their newly hatched sisters with incredible dedication. When it was hot, they ventilated their nest by whirring their wings. How can you dislike any creature who works so hard and selflessly for its family?
Despite my ambivalence, I'm glad the Garden Spider has become my neighbor, and I'm glad she eats wasps.
On Friday morning I was biking to the organic gardens, thinking only of my morning chores. Right before reaching the upper garden the dirt road passed through a narrow space between the tool shed and the giant bamboo patch. Because of recent rains water had pooled in the road's ruts, so I had to be careful to keep the bike from slipping into deep rut-water.
And then I realized that my bike's front tire had just run over the tail of an Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma - a Western Cottonmouth, also known as Water Moccasin. This is a very dangerous venomous snake.
My reflex was to slam on the brakes in order to keep the back tire from discomfiting the critter even more, but the moment I found myself balancing on a stationary bicycle with both legs spread out, and the snake below me stabbing at my wheels as its tail violently vibrated against dry leaves making it sound like a rattlesnake, I wondered if stopping had been the wise thing to do. Even under those circumstances I realized that eventually my bike would tilt one way or another, and that my legs would have to come down.
Fortunately it was a small snake, only about 30 inches long (75 cm) so when I finally had to bring my legs down I could spraddle them enough so that my feet didn't distract the snake's attention from my tires. I managed to inch my bike forward as the snake slipped into a rut's water, sending frogs jumping like popcorn.
I returned with a bucket, coaxed the snake into it, put a lid on it, and carried it to a lake across the hill.
Two white, immature Little Blue Herons awaited me at the lake, and since they were beyond a stone's-throw away they saw no reason to budge. Their reflections in the calm water were perfectly set among other reflections of blue sky, the green woods beyond, and graceful cattails bordering the lake. My snake swam into this reflected imagery, its head poked stiffly above the water and at the angle of an inverted V of waves spreading behind it. The effect was like that of a good Chinese-landscape watercolor, a perfect and wondrous story expressed with a very few brushstrokes.
One funny thing about the picture, however, was that my mostly-black snake appeared to be wearing oversized, buff-colored earmuffs. The "earmuffs" were the snake's large poison glands -- where its venom is produced. I've never seen a snake's poison glands so set off by color before, but in this particular individual the effect was striking. These glands are responsible for the superstition that snakes with triangular heads are poisonous. That's often the case, but not always, and lots of innocent and useful snakes are killed because of the error.
The herons eventually flew away as the snake approached them, and I was glad to have such a peaceful ending for what could have become a very painful, perhaps deadly, next few days.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,