A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

From mid-summer to the end of fall I see many brown paper wasps. In the summer, they join a variety of creatures visiting our flowering plants. They are focused on their job and have no interest in me. My fear of creatures that look like them, motivated by an unpleasant encounter with a hornets’ nest when I was a boy, can stay dormant. 

I find them indoors as fall approaches, often near doors, but sometimes having advanced to other rooms. I approach them gingerly but with lethal intent, which turns out to be a needless strategy. Even though they can sting in less than half the time it takes a bee, their venom is stronger than a bee’s. Unlike a bee, hornets can sting repeatedly; the smarter strategy is to leave them alone. They attack only when threatened. The brighter the color, the stronger the sting. Beware the brown paper wasp with red or orange highlights. 

As leaves fall, each paper wasp I see appears slower than the last. This is because they are at the end of their lives. Only the hibernating queen will survive the winter. As the season cools, the wasp looks for something warm, like a retiree moving to Florida. 

They are beneficial to a habitat, good pollinators and pest controllers. Paper wasps are named for the their papery, gray nests, constructed from dead wood, plant stems, and saliva. Nests can be constructed around many structures, including tree limbs, open pipes, and, a couple years ago, the inside of our outdoor sconce. The nest blocked out the light. There were always dozens of wasps at our door. 

I reluctantly protected myself as well as possible and approached them with the necessary lethal spray. Even with their threat level at maximum, I was not attacked by many. Most flew away, now nestless, perhaps to seek warmth and safety indoors, to live out their days in insect exile. 

Good for the neighborhood, but dangerous when threatened, seeking a warm place in winter. Even the wasps are not so different from the rest of us here in the forest.

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