Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Vespa crabro

(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.


Zhoen said...

I've never allowed myself to be afraid of wee bugges, but I have a lifelong dis-attraction to them. I scroll past photos of them, avoid stories about them, in very much a live and let live (over there if you don't mind) manner.

marja-leena said...

Great photo and fascinating information and links, Lucy! I confess to a lot of ignorance about hornets, wasps, bees etc. We used to burn their nests but are learning to tolerate them as we understand their importance in ecology, especially as pollinators, trying to catch those lost indoors and releasing them outdoors, even staying reasonably calm when they come dine with us outdoors by the barbeque. Our grandchildren are becoming fascinated though still a bit fearful as we watch them steal a bit of salmon or hamburger, as we tell them that they take the food to feed their young ones, we think. Love for them is a bit strong a word though in our case. Certainly taking close up photos can be a joy and looking up information is a valuable lesson and I thank you for sharing all this!

Dick said...

I've never had a thing about insects or arachnids, but the hornets that used to buzz us in the pool at my parents' house in the Var were the size of small birds - at least the inch long of the ones in your photo, Lucy. I read your post with great interest and to understand is indeed to forgive to a degree. But I have to admit: those Provençal frelons entered my nightmares!

Pam said...

Yes... interesting but I think I prefer flowers. In fact - I definitely do.

Kelly said...

Many compliments come to mind here. I applaud your desire to understand things that are typically feared by those who do not know (thanks for your kind words about my latest post which is kind of on the subject of learning rather than fearing). Your attention to detail in studying the bugs and the photos are worthy of praise, I find myself not willing to put out the effort to be so complete more times than not. I am a little concerned that you might get me hooked on insects from these post and give me a new topic to obsess on, just joking. Great stuff.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh Lucy, that Hornissenschutz site is nifty city! Danke! This reminds me of the time I almost squashed an Orb Weaver out of fear, but something stopped me; I looked them up on the web and found out all sorts of fascinating facts. My fear fled, and that year, I became the proud auntie to hundreds of little Orb Weaver babies.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

Lucy, I too have discovered a latent passion for bugs through blogging, and I'd draw your attention to the site Xenogere run by Jason M Hogle. You'll find a link on my blogroll. Just recently Jason has been posting about his writing and also about a great sadness in his life. Dip into his archive however and you'll find an extraordinary treasury of photographs... he's a first rate with a camera... and nature writings, principally on birds and bugs. He has an incisive and questing intellect, and so the science is always sharp and informative. But he also observes with his heart, and so the mix is potent. Try the site out. You may find it compelling.

Roderick Robinson said...

It's impossible not to think the little devils have got it in for humans. Lolling outside a Prague bar, contemplating a half glass of Pilsner Urquell (a tableau oft-repeated during the past week) I watched a special Czech Republic wasp attempt to share the beer with me. He (all wasps are male, I'm convinced) was not discouraged when I raised the glass to my mouth and would, I'm sure, have risked a hideous death down my guzzard had I been equally inclined towards suicide. It's that downward curving fuselage that suggests vindictive purpose. I admire your scientific detachment.

Lucy said...

Evidently I have not done enough to persuade you to go read up more about hornets.

Regular wasps, like most of the more repugnant other species, are very much dependent on the rubbish and superfluity of human existence, and come to resemble us a little too much for comfort. Although some make the case that they are useful predators, early in the season anyway, this year especially they are extremely abundant and by now more nuisance than useful. They love rotting and fermenting matter of all kinds, especially later in the year, so they are drawn to us and our foodstuffs. They are, if not aggressive, not disinclined to sting us for the hell of it, just because they can, or because they are too drunk to know what they are doing; while calm is a good idea around them, they don't have to be provoked to sting. Frankly I would not discourage anyone from using any means necessary to get rid of them. However, don't try to do it yourself!

European hornets, on the other hand, feed very largely on other insects, even when they do turn to sugars later in the year, it is usually tree sap or occasionally ripe fruit still on the tree; they are never attracted to our foods or fermenting matter in any form, so they will not annoy anyone on a picnic or enjoying an al fresco beer or similar, and you will not swallow one, not a hornet anyway, a wasp maybe.

Generally they are not disposed to attack and sting if they can help it. The main problem with them is if you threaten their nests, or if they're trapped, I suppose, and because although their sting is not necessarily worse in its composition than an ordinary wasp sting, it is bigger so more painful and potentially dangerous if one is allergic.

And they do eat the odd honey bee, but not very many, unlike the Asian ones which I'll come to later.

In very hot dry weather especially they need a lot of water, which they take back to the nest and spray on it from their mouths to cool it, which is probably why they hung around above a Provencal swimming pool.

Mostly we get very few here, this year is exceptional. Despite all these efforts to get to now them better, I can't say I'm too sorry!

I can't really claim to have achieved scientific detachment; I'm not sure many scientists do either, which is rather the matter of the next post...

Thanks all for chipping in on a not very attractive subject, which I think perhaps I was rather drawn to as a reaction to a stats inspired need to have a popular and lovable blog!