(Vespa crabro, about life-size, on my screen anyway, perhaps appearing rather larger on most; making them as large as possible is part of the process.)
One of the uber-bloggers I came across while meta-browsing - I forget who, I'm afraid - made the point that one of the effects of the activity for her has been that she has become more aware of what her real interests are, perhaps in ways which have surprised her, in terms of what she finds herself drawn to research and post about. Likewise, rather despite myself, I seem to have acquired an interest in bugs.
It started with the pretty ones, butterflies chiefly and bees, and I suppose it was as a result of taking photographs. Flowers are fine, but not too challenging in terms of capture, but get a rapid, elusive and attractive insect in the shot an it's value added. Then there are the others, beautiful too, but slightly more sinister, dragonflies, damselflies, predatory and, to our perceptions, rather less sympathetic, with their oddly contorted mating shenanigens. Flies and other arthropods like spiders have yet to offer any appeal, but I'm open to moths and grasshopper/cricket type things. Having observed and snapped the creatures, I need to know and record what they are, and with the wonders of Google and Wikipedia, it's easy to find out some more.
So much for curiosity, naturally I like information about things which attract me, but with the hornets it's a bit different. I can't say they attract, except in terms that rather over-used word fascination, I suppose. I'm hoping knowledge - and that includes getting up close and personal with the camera, albeit with the safety of glass between us - will set me free. Free of the fear of a large, venomous, unfamiliar and ugly brute with a whopping great sting on its backside which, for the last few weeks, in ones, twos or threes, has been regularly descending on our back French doors with an alarming amount of noise and apparent urgency to get into the house with us. But also free of fear's twin, loathing, which has been looming altogether too large in my consciousness, and, as I became aware when I found myself making scary faces and noises, flapping my hands around my face like buzzing wings at them, through the glass, making me somewhat ridiculous if only to myself.
So, what have I learned about them? Many things. The photos confirmed that they clearly are European hornets, vespa crabro, rather than any more sinister or alarming Asian varieties, which I'll come to later. My initial speculation that they were the emerging reproductive males and females drawn to the light instead of each other is probably wrong, as it's a little early for that. At the moment, the nest is reaching its peak, and the queen is busy laying and the sterile female workers busy feeding the first fertile males and young queens, or gynes. So the workers are very active and that's why they're flying at all hours, though we still rarely see them in the day. They can catch all kind of other night-flying insects to take back to the nest, and are only at risk themselves from the odd bat (and from us armed with fly swats, but we don't really officially fit into the predator-prey chain). As the sexually equipped males and females begin to emerge, the workers will begin to neglect their hitherto pampered and worshipped queen, and she will eventually wither and die of malnutrition.
The wiki link above provides only quite basic information, but led to what is the most entrancing site of all, Hornissenschutz (click it, please if only for the welcome page, you won't regret it), the German hornet protection site. Hornets are a protected species in Germany, you can be heavily fined for unauthorised destruction of their nests. The people who run this site are truly impassioned apologists and defenders of vespa crabro. Their 'lifecycle of hornets, an overview', presumably an amalgam of observations collected from a number of studies, from the April date when 'hornetqueen leaves her winter hideout', through the various eclosions, attacks by usurpers, relocation, and the royal court, the moment when 'on beautiful autumn days, the sexuals swarm out to mate', to the final line when 'the last worker of the colony dies on a frosty autumn night' has an epic, heroic quality, of something ancient, stirring and full of dark alien glitter, helped a little, I think, by its being translated from the German, though the translation is excellent. The whole is a potential treasury of found poetry.
And if you're looking for a slightly less lyrical gasp factor, there are the pictures of the blissfully smiling hornet-loving folk with the creatures crawling over their chins and noses, the British enthusiast's helpful instructions on how to relocate a nest ( do it in the wee small hours, feed them with honey, chill them, put them in a funnel neck jar, give them more honey...) or the mp3 recording of the hungry larvae scritching in demand of their next meal.
So, has it worked, have I learned to love vespa crabro, or those of the species who batter at my windows each night? To a point, and understanding a little more does help. I've read in more than one place, it is quite common for people to feel scared of this phenomenon, but the insects are not deliberately besieging us, just confused, and, it's said, turning the lights down should swiftly allow them to reorient. In our experience, this isn't entirely true, sometimes they are still clinging to the glass in a dopey fashion early the following morning, sometimes they are lying apparently dead or moribund on the step. But we have found that keeping the lights largely off save for a table lamp in that part of the room, while it is a little inconvenient sometimes, seems to keep them at bay for longer, and if the worst comes to the worst I put Mol's lead on and take her out the front last thing, where they come much less. We haven't resorted to swatting any for a while now, though I'm not sure I'll be knocking on their nest door and inviting them to walk on my face any time soon.
And it all makes me wonder at the dedication of the hornet experts, and why people love the things they do, at the nature of anthropomorphism, and at the fear and loathing of the alien, the unknown, the frightening things which come out of the night to batter at our fragile sense of security, especially the ones that experience, or hearsay, informs us can hurt us, but probably don't really want to.
But that's for another time.