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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

My father was a naturalist. His staggering knowledge of nature was not learned in school. He came by it ... naturally. When I was a child he told me that wasps and their larger hornet cousins were one of nature’s few mistakes – them and maybe humans.

“They’re aggressive. They kill bees. They’re poor pollinators and birds won’t eat them because they’re too crunchy.”

My father may have been prejudiced given he nursed a virulent allergy to wasp venom and there were occasions when he was rushed to the hospital for shots of epinephrine. This was before people like him carried EpiPens at all times.

I inherited my father’s love of nature and his aversion to wasps and hornets. Mercifully I do not suffer his anaphylactic allergic response. Instead, the site of stings will swell, redden, itch and pain for weeks – usually the duration of the summer.

Each spring, I assemble an arsenal of anti-wasp artillery – fake nests to lure them away from the house and quaint Victorian wasp traps to distract them from my porch. When these gentle strategies fail, I resort to aggressive measures – sprays and bombs, and as a final strategy, the barbecue lighter to torch their carefully constructed nests and the unwitting occupants.

I believe wasps in turn target me. I imagine them in their nests passing my picture around and the queen giving strict orders to target and destroy. I am not being needlessly paranoid either. Scientists have determined that wasps indeed are able to recognize and remember human faces. I try to stay out of their way but they seek me out. If I go to get the mail, they will follow me to the box and make a point of stinging me. I follow the same strategy I use when encountering aggressive dogs. I never look a wasp in the eye but somehow they trick me into engaging. I usually end up on the short end of the stick and the wasp wins and stings.

One summer long ago, I took my children – my then-four-year-old son and his baby sister – to a local park for a swim in the pee pool and a sandwich and juice box picnic. Typically the yellow jackets were swarming around the garbage pail. I watched in slow motion as my 18-month-old daughter bit into a jelly sandwich with a wasp on the crust. She screamed in pain and surprise. Fearing she might have inherited her grandfather’s allergy I bundled my children into the car to drive to the nearest hospital. My son muttered from his car seat

“Stupid baby. Now we can’t go swimming.”

“Shut your mouth,” I screamed, “your sister might die.” He was silent and stared out the window morosely.

As we turned into the emergency bay and I heard my daughter babbling and laughing, I realized that she was safe. I apologized to my son who merely shrugged in response. It wasn’t clear if he was worried about his sister or just sorry he missed a swim.

We live on the water and there is an annual wager to see who goes swimming first. I am highly competitive and I usually win the bet. In early April this year we had some unseasonably warm days. I felt the urge to jump in the water. I got my water shoes from the shed and sat on the dock. One shoe on and then the second and then a shooting blast of pain like I have never felt before. It eclipsed the pain of childbirth.

When I stopped screaming I picked up the shoe and peered inside. There was the queen crouched in the dark toe of my water shoe. She stared balefully back at me – a gleam of triumph in her eyes. I put the shoe down and with my good foot crushed her. She would now be denied her destiny. She would not build a nest and found a new colony. Despite my agony, I felt some vindication. I am not a misanthrope who hates nature – I grow lavender and wade through swarms of honey bees. I feed the little mouse in my kitchen cupboards – he knows to eat only the stale crackers. But wasps and hornets are my enemy.

Recently there has been a movement to defend wasps. Wasp advocates insist that if it weren’t for wasps, the planet would be pest-ridden to biblical proportions. Apparently wasps are right at the top of the invertebrate food chain and have a significant role regulating the numbers of carnivorous and plant-feeding arthropods (such as spiders and centipedes) and by so doing protect lower invertebrate species and plants. Figs and orchids reportedly are dependent on wasps as special pollinators. Call me a monster, but I don’t care.

My left big toe now resembles an overripe damson plum. The skin is shiny and stretched. My son on examining it suggested that it looked like the skin might suddenly split open and an army of baby wasps would emerge. Now I dream of that – the queen filled my left foot with venom and simultaneously impregnated me with her progeny.

She sits in a small glass jar on my night table. Before turning out the bedside light, I look into her arrogant stare. I understand that she was defending not only herself but her babies and her species. I might respect her but I am still glad she is dead in that jar.

M. Kathryn Dunlop lives in Ottawa.

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