A backyard sting operation

4 years ago

Don’t you love it when a simple backyard project completely turns course and becomes an Adventure (with a capital A)?  

Saturday I went out with pruners and gloves. The sun was shining despite some black clouds, and it hadn’t rained a drop. 

Until I started toward the garden. 

Grumbling, I waited. When the rain stopped, out I went again. While cutting dead blossoms off the massive lilies in the front garden, I noticed a hornet or two buzzing around. Then there seemed to be more, and more, and I noticed they were disappearing into a crack between the boards of the front porch.


As I watched, more and more hornets flew in under the porch from the latticed sides, and still more went through that crack on the step. There was obviously a nest under there — and that close to an entrance to the house, it had to go.

A few moments later, armed with wasp and hornet spray, I shot the foam through both sides of the porch and down the cracks in the steps. Hornets still flew. The can said to wait several hours or overnight for those returning to the nest to be affected. “One treatment is all it takes,” the directions proclaimed.


Sunday morning, there were just as many hornets as before. My dad stopped in to see what was up. We trained flashlights under the porch to no avail. No nest was visible. Hornets came and went all the while. After treating the area again with the insecticide, Dad noticed what he thought was the edge of a nest in a narrow space between porch boards. There it was, just the gray, papery edge. And if that three- to four-inch strip was just the edge, it was no tiny nest.

After the blade of a garden edger failed to make contact with the nest, off came one of the latticed sides for clear access. And we still couldn’t see the nest. Studying its placement under the step, we realized it must be attached to the top and to the large board in back of the step. (Curse that well-constructed porch.) 

Even blasts of water from the garden hose, angled under the step, failed to have any effect. 

Surprisingly, the insects weren’t aggressive — they simply flew around and around us, traveling to their papery home.

My dad, in full MacGyver guise, asked for an old wire coat hanger. This he bent with pliers to form a straight piece with the end bent at a right angle, reasoning we could feed it through the step, then turn it to slice the nest off its anchor. Several tries later, the nest hadn’t moved. As we pondered the next move, one last swipe with the wire resulted in a soft plopping sound.

Success. The nest was down.

It was about four inches in diameter and nearly six inches long. With a spade I rolled it out onto the lawn. 

The thing was constructed in about four levels, attached to one another in a spiral formation, with hundreds of cells — some filled with eggs, some with (bleahhh) larvae and some with developed hornets. We treated the nest on all sides and put the porch back together. And I only suffered one small sting on a finger, which developed into a small welt with a bit of swelling.

On my dad’s advice I tried the old-fashioned meat tenderizer remedy, which involves making a paste and covering the wound area for about 20-30 minutes. This diminished the swelling and redness like magic. 

Of course, I wanted to know why it worked. The answer lies in papaya. According to several internet sources including hopkinsmedicine.org, the enzyme papain, found in papayas and included in meat tenderizer, not only breaks down tough meat tissue but will also neutralize the insect venom. 

According to descriptions from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website and buzzaboutbees.net, these were likely some kind of paper wasp. They didn’t behave aggressively, and the nest was pear-shaped and constructed with a paperish covering. 

After studying that nest, I have to say it is truly amazing how such tiny creatures can construct a home out of wispy papery material, fill it with perfectly symmetrical cells to grow their young, and attach this structure to something so securely that it can withstand wind, weather and human efforts to remove it.

Fascinating and beneficial though they may be, however, I’m glad none of the critters from that nest will be squeezing in around the door. 

Only one problem, said a neighbor yesterday. They won’t return to the same place to build — they’ll move on. He seemed a bit worried.

Paula Brewer is assistant editor for The Star-Herald, Aroostook Republican, Houlton Pioneer Times and St. John Valley Times, plus websites TheCounty.ME and FiddleheadFocus.com. She can be reached at 207-764-4471 or via email at pbrewer@bangordailynews.com.