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.

"No. Why?"

"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 cheeks.

"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 observed.

"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 your bedroom.

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 wasps?"

"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 that day.

"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 was going.

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.


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