Posts Tagged ‘wasps’

Sheds, Paint and Wasps.

On Tuesday morning I decided it was time to paint the back garden shed. It is actually a monster of a building. The previous house owner worked on building sites and this is almost certainly a garage-sized site store, complete with double front doors and two sets of frosted windows with opening lights.

It had needed some timbers replacing and this job is meant to make any further renovation un-necessary for the foreseeable future (I can at least hope). But, of course, it should be all the same colour and so needs overall painting doing before autumn brings damp which will further destroy the flaking paint and make painting more difficult (because I can come up with brilliant excuses to put things off).

So I root around inside the shed, dig out the electric sanding machine, the Swiss army pen-knife ladder of many positions, my faithful Black and Decker Workmate with the wonky leg, an extension cable, paint brushes and, luckily, find some sandpaper patches that’ll fit onto the sander. Oh and the three tins of paint we bought in anticipation.

And I am away, scrambling around on the ladder, leaning this way and that; too far away, too close … but getting it done like a poor version of the Crimson Pirate. Having an electric sander makes the job faster, but the vibrations run up my arm and have my head going even after I turn the machine off.

I plan to split it into sections: a day for each of the sides, and time each day to add a second coat which will definitely be needed as we are putting a paler colour (herb garden) on top of a deeper, gloss green. The idea, apart from the fact that The Plantation Owner’s Wife liked the colour that it’ll bring light into the “fire-pit glade” which is now shaded by next door’s laburnum, a Korean pine and the now-massive small-leaved lime tree that we bought as a sapling from the Alternative Technology Centre at Maccyntleth many years ago.

The painting goes more smoothly than I had thought and, adding in some trim repairs to the doors, I am finished in time to get changed and go to the Walsall game (another story altogether). But before I go I have time to sit and drink a cup of tea at the table on the lawn. As I am sitting there I notice a procession of wasps visiting the table. Not to attack me or my slab of chocolate cake (made to use up the surplus courgettes) but to chew away at the table top. This is a table and chairs et we bought at a garden centre we visited looking for French bean seeds. About six years ago: silvery metal frame and pale coloured wooden surface planks. Elegant. But the weather has taken away the varnish, exposing the wood and wasps are industriously taking it away to build, extend or repair a nest somewhere. For once I have no idea where the nearest wasp nest is. We’ve had them in our roof space, in a nest box outside the front room window, in a hole in the rockery and once upon a time a persistent queen tried to build a nest hanging from our (timber) bathroom ceiling.

Image result for wasps on wood

I have great respect for wasps. I am intrigued by the functionality of their social altruism and single minded determination. They are organic machines, finely tuned and adapted for purpose … and stunningly beautiful too. Treated with respect they are not usually a threat – until order dies in the colony, as inevitably it must – and I am witnessing amazing behaviour from super-predators. Their slim waisted bodies twitch incessantly as they chow down into the wood with strong mandibles the evening sun reflecting off their hard body shells.

Image result for wasps on wood

During the fifteen minutes or so that I watch, fascinated, the in-out flights continue. I wonder at what stage wasp nests actually stop expanding.

And are all of these visitors from the same nest? Are wasps territorial? Will wasps from different colonies work side by side?

At one stage there are four wasps eating away at the table top, taking small layers off each time.

How long will it be before I am thinking of rubbing the table down and … oh dammit, it just happened, didn’t it?


Only In England

There’s a Gardener’s World Question Time programme on the car radio when I climb in after a brief visit to the allotment this is broadcast from the North east market town of Barnard Castle.

Image result for gardeners question Time Barnard castle  Image result for gardeners question Time Barnard castle

The presenter, Eric Robson, after the obligatory history-in-a-nutshell begins, to laughter from the audience by reading out an article from the Teesdale mercury newspaper, headed :

“Sorry, No Nudists Here.”

Last week the Teesdale Mercury reported how Welsh nudists would be part of a panel at Gardener’s Question Time … this was a mistake. What we should have reported was that panel members for the radio programme have in the past visited Welsh nudist clubs. Our young reporter momentarily lost his concentration when he read the word nudist in the press release and made the unfortunate slip of the pen.

However we can gladly report that sales of tickets for the event have gone very well since we published our initial story.

We apologise to anyone who has booked a ticket expecting to see naked horticulturalists.”

By the time the reading was over I was back at home, smiling quietly. I didn’t care to listen to the remainder of the show; some catching up of work to be done and the time just stole away as it is wont to do at weekends.

This can be a marvellous way to lose half an hour or so when I am in the mood: the information, the opinions, the topical tip and pure exchange of stories and banter is charming and educational.

And, every now and again there is a small jewel dropped in to the programme such as this No Nudists opening.

Only in England, I suspect.

Tonight driving home from work I cannot help but marvel at the layers of sky, from pale blue at the horizon, pink overhead with a range of grey clouds dancing in the periphery of Storm Henry … and noting that at five pee em it is still light enough to drive without lights … spring is coming; this is February 1st after all!

To Scorpions, By Way Of Vipers and Wasps


“How much can they grow?” we innocently – stupidly – asked each other, up at the plot before a few days away. London beckoned. Tours of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and anything else that could be shoe-horned in. The they in question were courgettes: looking as sweet and tinily charming as Gremlins before water.

We get back and like the un-named plant in God’s creation garden in Ted Hughes’ marvellous creation story How the Whale Became* they have doubled, re-doubled and doubled again. In size. and in number. Strangely there are only yellow ones – and we both swear that we planted equal numbers of yellow and Green Bush seedlings out into the raised beds.

So the Plantation Owner takes a former chef’s kitchen knife to them and they will be headed for veggie bakes, relatives, sponge cake (I hope!) and the gym fairly soon. Problem of course is that Hydra like when we take one off, two more seem to take the place.

Nearby the pumpkins have finally taken off, but have not yet produced a flower. The top dressing of horse do-dah may have helped, but we need pumpkins for bonfire celebrations.

Elsewhere the potato plants are naturally dying back. The first row we lifted was poor, but since then we are getting reasonable crops: no blight and – so far – no damage from wireworm or slugs.

Runner beans, deliberately planted late are now ready for picking and peas are coming to an end: but, Hurst Green Shaft – still sweet.

Good crops of cabbage – and the best cauliflower we have ever grown – in fact in more than ten years of trying the only ones we have got to full heads.

But most of all: so many, many currants: red, black and white. Wines made and plans to pick as many of the remainder as possible before the weekend.

Then another plotholder approaches: he’s going round telling anyone who’ll listen – and on an allotment many of us have perfected the art of seeming to listen while planning either how to get away or what we need to do next on the ground – that there are still adders on site. He came across one on his plot this morning in the long grass (my mind is saying “weeds” but very quietly). Fifteen inches long apparently. He poked it with a stick, then went to have a brew in somebody else’s shed while, presumably the serpent, taking the hint moved on.

We have our own wasps’ nest: in the third compost bin where we keep the straw dry; it’s used for the “wee bucket” and to put under the strawberries (of course – oh, except that we forgot this year – whoops!). Not a problem yet, the wasps are still gardener friendly, taking pests from the crops to nurture nest mates and larvae – but the nest is very close to plum, apple and pear trees.

The new-this-year guy across the path proudly shows us the range of peepers he is growing in his smart greenhouse (“thanks for the compliment he says,” when I mention it to him, looks great, but was a very bitch to put up!”). he’ s got bell peppers, jalapenos and one called Scorpion which apparently you need to wear gloves even to touch it.

Vipers, wasps, scorpions: allotmenteering suddenly sounds very risky!

Sitting upstairs at the moment listening to football commentaries and secretly wondering if I can manage to stay up long enough to look for the Perseid meteor showers that should be visible in clear skies promised by BBC’s weather forecasters: it would certainly be something to see, wouldn’t it?

*What? Never read it: I can heartily recommend it.

Views from the Garden

Warm day, lazy start. We were at a concert last night: the latest re-invention of a fine local band called Quill at the Robin2 in Bilston. Very pleasant way to spend a Friday evening.

And across the fences we can hear the PA system from the Family Fun day? Help the Heroes event at the Star pub. Of course: I had forgotten … The Red Devils Parachute display team were opening the event. Sure enough the Loadmaster plane came round and we had great views of the descent. A fine start to an event in a good cause: community and the people who we depend upon to keep us safe.

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I have given the different components umpteen coats of Country Cream paint. I have managed to assemble the pieces and fasten them together (memories of Air fix models of Spitfires, Lancasters, Panzer tanks, a beautiful all-white Catalina and the Bismarck battleship) and re-paint the whole. Now we set about clearing the space in the border where it will be placed. A couple of beetle banks (old turfs that have rotted down but actually still contain unrotted sphagnum moss) and a sack full of hostile dried holly leaves – good thing this Cadiz Arbour (the place spelled differently where Drake “singed the beard of the King of Spain” – though I doubt anyone at the garden centre knew that) has a roof.

While I am putting this final coat on, however the wet paint is assailed by dozens of soldier beetles. This is the first year we have seen this in the garden (as a child I was a little afraid of them as I believed they were bloodsuckers because of their colour) which may have been attracted to the pale colour. Not sure but a couple of them met a sticky end. Sorry guys. I am particularly conscious of the small things in the garden at the moment, having been to watch Marvel’s Ant man at the cinema earlier in the week.

Sitting in the garden reading (The Bat by Jo Nesbo) I notice the industrious leaf cutter bees. First I spy them on the bee hotel on the garden wall, but later see them actually clinging on to the edges of leave on the small leaved lime tree; cutting through, quite precisely avoiding – I guess the tougher ribs – and before falling out of control hovering then zooming away to their nests.

For dinner we have roast chicken. Eaten outside – yes, it is finally warm enough. Wasps come scouting around and when I have pushed my plate away actually start to take apart a piece of chicken I didn’t eat. When the Head Gardener takes the plate away I put the chicken onto a collapsed bottle. The wasp returns time after time. Using it’s mandibles it severs a chunk – about the same size as its own abdomen and flies away with it. Within twenty minutes there is a queue of the insects. Some of them fight: tiny black and yellow yin-yang symbols. I guess these are creatures from different nests as some also sit on the meat, like miniature vultures and pick at it without animosity. They seem unable to do this, however without constantly twitching their abdomens.

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“I am still hungry somehow …” Head Gardener comments.

“There’s a bit of chicken left here if you want it …” I smile.

The look I get in return would reduce a wasp to quivering jelly.




Friend or Foe?

“Top gate or bottom gate?”

It’s the usual question when we are leaving the plot. Our bits are at the bottom of the hill, furthest, we always smile (albeit grimly) away from the water taps and closer to the bottom gates. But it can be a tricky pull out, the tall hawthorn hedges make it difficult, if not impossible to see – pedestrians and cars.

So we often plump for the top gate.

Both gates are locked; plot holders have keys. So: get to the gate. Unlock the gate. Drive out. Lock the gate behind you.

Waiting at the top gate yesterday, I was aware of somebody calling my name.

“Know anything about wasps?”

“Come and have a look at this …”

Smashing bloke with a great sense of humour, always friendly and generous with advice, has been stung – quite badly – on the hand. Turns out he was putting some canes away in his shed and got just a little too close to a common wasps nest that’s hanging from a wooden rafter holding up the roof.

Wasp’s nests: what can I say?

Such delicately beautiful structures. Superb engineering, lots of effort and aesthetically pleasing. In our own back garden we have a Scandinavian (I like to think) stack of logs, timber, bits of pallet and chipboard) that we use as fuel for the fire-pit. It is not uncommon in early summer for wasps to fly in, land on the wood and chew off small segments. If you are quiet it is possible to hear their mandibles scraping away the fibre. This “wasp paper” is what they use to build the nest.

These common wasps are social insects and I wonder at their organisation, the strict functions and etiquettes of a creature of prey. Each year only a young queens will survive from each nest; hibernating somewhere through the cold – no-prey – spells of late autumn and winter. Wake next spring and know instinctively how to build a nest. How does that happen? How is it possible? She will then lay the first brood, care for them and extend the nest. This new generation then takes over the building and each successive generation will continue the work. New tasks are required however, maintaining the structure, caring for the larvae, the queen, keeping the nest site tidy…

One year I was disturbed when trying to go to sleep by an insistent buzzing from the bathroom. A wasp battering itself against the window. I let it out. The next night the same. And the following night. This was, though I didn’t immediately register it, a queen wasp beginning a nest – actually on our bathroom ceiling, flying unerringly back to the same spot with “wasp paper”.

Image result for common wasps uk Image result for common wasp nest photos

Sadly I had to destroy this nest. Fair to say, I think, that I will go a long way to help wildlife but wasps where I go to the toilet? Really? Some things are one step too far!

Naturally protective of their home (where young wasps are being raised in the matriarch lead nest) they will defend their “neighbourhood” aggressively. At this time of the year they will be tending the young and hunting to feed themselves and their nest mates and developing wasplings ( a new word apparently, they are technically larvae (grubs or maggots). During summer days they will be cruising in a very efficient manner, picking up small insects (including caterpillars of “cabbage white butterflies”) and taking them to the brood chambers.

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Later, when the queen stops laying, they will become less ordered, spend time sucking at fruit and become less predictable, more randomly dangerous. Because they are predators their sting can be used over and over again in a stabbing action. Unlike honey bees who can sting only once, leaving the barbed tip of the sting in your flesh and are then bound to die.

Both stings can be painful (extremely so) and in rare cases fatal. But wasps look menacing: beautiful, graceful but definitely menacing. Their pattern, their faces in close up, their body shape, streamlined and intimidating.

The nest inside the allotment shed is the size of a small melon, roughly spherical with the single, easily defensible entrance at the base. Wasps are flying in and out of it as we look. A local gamekeeper – when I was a child – would give us money if we could tell him where there was a wasp’s nest, even more if we took it to him. Anglers would use the maggots as bait. Perhaps they still do.

He doesn’t want to exterminate the wasps because like me he admires their part in the nature of the world. However he does realise that if he leaves the nest untouched he has to surrender his shed until much later in the year – and the consequences of the near presence of wasps in late autumn is usually not a pleasant one.

The Wasps and The Ivy

Struggling a little with sore throat that might well become a raging ‘flu.
Struggling too with paperwork generated by recent allotment committee meetings.
It’s becoming a fine sun-warmed day outside. I long to be on the plot: autumn digging calls, but duty and the need to pamper my aching body (all sympathy genuinely received folks) is the better part of valour – well, so far at least.
But outside the double-glazed patio doors the ivy-in-need-of-trimming that sprawls luxuriously over the six foot high timber fence is brimming with slick, glossy dark leaves and discreet flowers. And overwhelmed by insects.
A season battered comma butterfly clinging on to the bloom. Another day of life really does depend on it for this banner winged stalwart. A great year for butterflies and moths – eventually, and I have been pleased to see so many more commas here this year than for a long, long time.
But there is a large number of wasps, displaying their mastery of flight in the fitful autumn breath breezes that rag-tag wrestle across the ready-for-a-final-cut – I sincerely hope –lawn. Two of the wasps are vivid and large. My guess is that they are queens and will soon be looking for a hibernation niche somewhere. Often they over-winter in our shed, but once or twice in the back bedroom in the curtains.
There was the angry sound and fury of a police helicopter over the fields earlier. I have always been astounded by the manoeuvrability of helicopters; this one was going through the range and the wind that seeks to confound the wasps bought used snatches of air-show volume sound as the machine went through the whole range, including flying backwards while tipped nose down forward.
But these min-replicas are in a class of their own. There is no aggression. They circle, bob and land. As if playing some game of tag that I don’t have the rules for.
But in the full-glare warmth of the sun there are hosts of what I have always thought of as house flies: blue and green bottles, flashing their jewelled abdomens in the outside world, lumbering amongst the mass of small midges that are resident.
There are gales forecast.
I have onions to string, there will be windfalls to collect and paperwork to complete, but the few moments lively distraction has been good for my soul.
Back to the grind, glad not to be a wasp with the winds and cold coming.

Curiosity #1


I am sorry that I could not get a clearer photo. In my defence my hands were covered in cement dust and blisters (maybe some poetic licence is allowed eh?) from the communal landscaping work in progress.

But I believe the picture is clear enough to back up my question:

What on Earth is going on here?

At any one time there were as many as twenty seven wasps at the bases of three of my potato haulms, and were not even sufficiently disturbed when I moved the plant stems over to get a better look.

The stem was broken and had scar tissue covering the wound, but the wasps seemed to be gnawing/chewing the remainder of the plant – at it’s thickest part. There are also reports of potato blight on site, so we are all either cutting the tops off our potatoes and burning them or getting the potatoes out of the ground. Since I do not know what is attracting the wasps to the plants I have no idea if there is a link.

When I was first summoned to have a look at the spectacle (something I have never seen before)  I wondered if they were

a)      Attacking and eating some prey species: a leatherjacket or caterpillar perhaps, or

b)      Entering a nest entrance, with the nest being in the earthed up part of the potato bed.

It may be significant that after I left the immediate vicinity the wasps continued to visit, and stay for prolonged amounts of time. Fifteen minutes or more.

We have a wildlife friendly approach to our allotment, with wildflower areas, bird nest boxes, a bee hotel and pond, so are keen to encourage such visitors. We know that wasps are useful pest predators for most of their lives , have a marvellous social structure and respect their need to “let off steam” when the nest is getting “tired”.

But gorging on potato stems?

I am really keen to know what is going on, so if you can help, or if you have seen anything like this, please get in touch.

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