The Hornets Nest
by Marc Moran
July 23, 2002
My son learned a valuable lesson this past weekend.
Despite the fact that he is only five-and-a-half years old, he has any uncanny
ability to see into the heart of matters and to come to conclusions based on
experience, rather than on concepts.
While playing with several of the neighborhood boys on his backyard swing
set on Sunday, my son was stung by a wasp. I knew, almost instinctually that
this was the case, by the sounds of my son's cries. It started out as a
reaction to the painful needle prick of the sting, but quickly intensified
into a higher pitched cry as the poison began to spread.
Years ago my wife and I were walking back to our home, holding hands, when
we passed by a neighbor's greenhouse. Out of nowhere, a hornet tapped
against the soft underside of my chin and stung me. I remember my initial
response was to slap at the hornet with my free hand and to grab at my
quickly swelling throat. The pain was very much like a burn, a pain that
ascended rather than abating, as in the case of a cut or puncture wound.
"I just got stung by a hornet." I said to my wife.
"Are you sure?" she asked me.
"You've never been stung before, have you?" I asked her in reply.
"You would never have asked that question if you had."
I sat down on the grass until the pain diminished, my wife, thinking that I
was kidding around continued on to our home, alone.
My son came running to me, not so much because of the sting, but because he
listened to what I had told him about being stung.
"If you are ever stung by a bee or a wasp," I had warned him, "Run as fast
as you can. Don't stop until you find Mommy or I."
"Why, Daddy?" he had asked me with real interest.
"Because there might be more of them, and one thing you don't want is to be
stung by a nestful. Run as fast as you can."
As my son sat on my lap, his hot, salty tears cut tracks through his dirty
"I ran, like you said."
"I am proud of you for remembering."
"He only got me once."
"You did the right thing." I said.
His friends stood around, adding valuable commentary and support.
"It came out from under the sliding board and stung him," said one boy.
"Got him right on his knee," said another.
"There's a whole nest under the sliding board," the oldest kid in the group
"Look at it swell!" said another.
I held a piece of ice on it while my wife mixed up some baking soda and
water. My son stopped crying, more because of the presence of his friends
than for any other reason, and wiped his nose.
"It really hurts," he said quietly.
"I know it does, but it won't for long."
My wife smeared the paste onto his little knee, and I asked him what he
thought I should do about the wasp nest under his sliding board.
"Kill them," he said with quiet assurance.
"Are you sure?" I asked, giving him an opportunity to spare the insects.
"I'm sure. Kill them all."
My wife said not a word in the exchange, although I know that it did not
please her at all. She still believes that we could all get along, the lions
and the lambs, the wasps and the children, if we just tried to understand
one another. She knows that our son and I have a connection that she does
not share. He asks me questions that she never hears from his lips, about
the world, nature, our place in it and our obligations and duties. Sometimes
it pains her to hear him talking about hunting and warfare and patriots and
death because she sees him as a mother sees a child; helpless, soft and
vulnerable, always in need of her protection. I, on the other hand, see him
as a man sees his child; full of promise, fearless and in need of the
information that will spare him in the future.
Mothers protect their young, if they are good mothers, and fathers teach
their children to protect themselves, if they are good fathers.
My wife feels that if she is there for him she will be able to do something
for him if he is in need. I know that I will not always be there, that one
day my son will have only himself to depend on, and I want him to be ready
for that day.
The boys gather together in a loose knot and prepare for the attack. They
have briefed me on the physical location of the nest, its approximate size
and shape, and even an estimated enemy count.
"Hundreds," one boy proclaims.
"Thousands," says another.
"It's about this big," says the oldest boy, a thirteen year old, holding his
thumb and forefinger together in a circle the size of a half dollar.
I take the conservative figure and move towards the swing set with my wasp
killer spray firmly in hand. I approach with some degree of stealth, as my
age does not necessarily provide me with protection against angry insects. I
move in under the sliding board to determine the exact location of the hive
and notice it is almost exactly the size of a half dollar and populated by
no more than a dozen highly agitated wasps clinging to their papery gray
nest. I calculate the direction of the spray, my avenue of escape after I
let fly and the denouement to this particular episode so that I might return
as soon as possible to building my stone wall in peace.
I can see my son, standing at a safe distance; chalky white baking soda
caked on his knobby knee. Around him are his friends, every one of which is
staring in fascination at the unfolding events beneath the sliding board.
I fire a jet stream of toxic chemicals at the nest and watch with a mix of
curiosity and animal dread as the offenders issue forth in a squadron-like
formation headed for safety. They begin to lose altitude almost immediately
and to fall in a soft rain upon the lawn, jerking and twitching in their
death throes. I pry at the moist nest with a stick and dislodge it from the
green sliding board and crush it with a flip-flop for good measure.
The threat removed I head back to the porch with a trail of young boys
following at close quarters, laughing and joking about the insect carnage
they have just witnessed.
"Did you see that?"
Within minutes the boys are busy with some other game involving a large
ball, wiffle ball bats, and a forty-five-foot holly tree in the back yard.
The dogs are barking and the smell of charcoal fires drifting in from other
yards fills the air. There is laughter and the sounds of a world in synch.
When my wife first moved to the East coast it was after spending the
previous twenty years living in Hawaii. She felt threatened by any bug or
spider she encountered, and it was only after several years of patiently
explaining what each little critter was and what role it played that she was
able to react in anything other than flat-out panic at the simple experience
of seeing one of these creatures. Spiders are good, I'd told her and flies
are generally a nuisance. Horseflies and gnats, like mosquitoes, served no
purpose that I could determine, and bees, well, bees pollinated things and
made honey, and if you were unlucky enough, you might get stung, but it was
usually your own fault. Wasps and hornets on the other hand were extremely
aggressive and territorial and woe unto the man or woman that stirred them
up. They have their place in nature, but you wouldn't want a nest of them in
I had made my determinations not on what others had told me, but upon my own
experience. I did not make a habit of chasing down colonies of chiggers, nor
did I lose a single night's sleep if I had to put a tick to the torch.
Sometimes bad things happen to good insects.
Before my son falls asleep I sit on the edge of the bed with him and he
asks, as he does every night, "What do you want to talk about?"
"You were very brave today," I say in all seriousness.
"Thanks, Dad," he says softly.
"Tell me about the wasps again."
"I wasn't doing anything to them," he said and then paused. "I'm sorry you
had to kill them."
"I guess I am too," I respond. "Do you think it would have been better for
them to stay under your sliding board building their nest and making more
"No. It's my jungle gym and we play there all the time. Some little kid
could have been stung. He might not have run like I did and then they could
have got him."
"That would have been bad?"
"It would have been awful."
He started to close his eyes and he began to breathe deeply and regularly
and within a few minutes he was fast asleep. I crept quietly from his room,
looking back once for a brief moment before closing his door.
My wife was sitting on the deck in the cool night air and I sat down and had
a glass of wine with her and talked about the weekend and what we had
accomplished and what we had on our plate in the week to come. At some point
during our conversation she asked me about my new baseball shirt I had worn
"What about Wichita?" she asked.
"You don't want to talk about it," I said.
"I wouldn't have asked," she said, knowing full well where this conversation
I tried to be as brief and as unemotional as possible about the story, and
she listened quietly as the details were related.
"So I guess the episode with the wasp is a metaphor to you."
"No, not really. I mean I didn't think about it like that at the time." The breeze picked up and you could smell a storm in the air, although it was
far away from us.
Our conversation drifted off to other things and we watched as the stars
dimmed, one at a time behind the veil of clouds above.
Perhaps there is a way to look at the world where actions are separable from
outcomes, but I cannot imagine how. I cannot see how ignoring a problem does
anything to solve it. Usually, as I have witnessed at least a thousand times
in the past, things only get worse by degrees until action has to be taken.
Nothing becomes easier to deal with by letting it go. I know some people who
would have made the swing set out of bounds to children for the rest of the
season. They would have explained to their child that the wasps are simply
living creatures as deserving of their place in the world as little
children, and that killing them would be an awful act, vicious and cruel and
unwarranted. Of course they would have no recourse with the wasps if their
child were stung, but somehow they would be able to rationalize and justify
the behavior of the wasp and pass it off on Nature as the motivation. They
would no doubt comfort their child no differently than I did, tuck him in
bed with the same love and concern, but they would make the child pay the
price for the actions of a wasp. And knowing insects as I do, those wasps would
make their nest in the same place the following year and the year after that
and soon the jungle gym would go unused by the ones it was meant for, while
insects enjoyed their comfortable surroundings, courtesy of the tolerant.
Nature knows what it is doing, even if we do not. It teaches those who are
patient enough to observe, and it judges harshly those who fail to obey the
laws it has made.
I do my best as a parent. Sometimes I fail, and sometimes I do the right
thing, but I never forget for a moment that what is most important is to
prepare my child for the future. I care not a whit for the popular or the
trendy, but rather I look to the past for the lessons to teach.
Later today, when I get home, the yard will be filled with kids again, as it
is every day, and they will be playing and shooting arrows and digging holes
and sliding down the sliding board, laughing.
One thing is certain; that wasp will not sting again.