The Hornet Hunter

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me in the spring or summer knows that I am no fan of insects. Maybe bees and dragonflies get a pass, and ladybugs. (But not those ladybug knockoffs.) But beetles, spiders, roaches, silverfish, millepedes, ants, I don’t want them on me or even near me, as impossible as I know that is. We’re very outnumbered by the insect world, and I super don’t enjoy thinking about that reality.

But there is a special level of ugh I hold for stinging insects like wasps and hornets and yellowjackets. I can deal with the fact that honey bees and bumble bees sting because heck, they need some kind of defense for themselves and they only use them as a last resort before dying. But those OTHER stinging insects are like extremist NRA members wearing their Glocks on their hips for a trip to Walmart, ready to shoot anyone around them and then keep on shopping like it’s no biggie. So when I see not one, but two hornets’ nests under construction on my newly acquired car port (otherwise known as the place where I park the family car four times a day), I have to take action. Especially when said construction includes laying the foundation for the next generation of venomous bugs.

A neighbor suggested I go to the hardware store at the eastern edge of Walla Walla, which turned out to be a ranch and home supply store. Here I could get a feed bag for my horse, any kind of Carhart gear my heart desired, or fake eggs to dupe the hens in my coop to lay more eggs. Or a can of thick poison guaranteed to kill on contact. I explained that I had a bee sting allergy thing and that I wanted to make sure the hornets would never get near me once I bamboozled them with my noxious elixir. The small man, his Vietnam Veteran ball cap pulled low over his forehead, squinted at me.

“Oh, they’ll die as long as you hit ’em,” he said. I felt judged. I can aim a can of poison, mister, I thought. He told me it should work up to twenty feet away.

I thanked him, considering whether I should refute his expectations of my hardiness and marksmanship, and then wandered away to the corner to pretend I had an enormous stallion in my backyard named Killer. (I have actually ridden a horse named Killer, but that’s another story.)

At this point I should mention that Walla Walla was in the midst of a heat wave, which it gets every summer in July or August, the temperatures of which typically reach into the three digits, just enough to remind all of us that even if some team of people planted elms and maples and poplars and birch here one hundred years ago, we live in the middle of a desert. It’s dry heat, yes, but 104 is scalding no matter the humidity percentage in the air. Our air conditioner ran constantly, and little Emile’s room, up on the second floor in what used to be the attic, had an extra portable AC unit just to keep it in the mid-70s. My office, also on the second floor, is probably unusable until September 30th.

I read up on hornets and learned that they “go dormant” at dusk, which at our latitude for this time of year means about 9:45. This was fine because presumably both boys would be asleep at that point so I could murder god’s creatures without explanation to them of either my skittishness or motivation. I put on thick cargo pants, ankle-high hiking boots (good for stamping out bugs should it come to that), a long-sleeved sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and a long wool scarf that I wrapped around my neck and bottom half of my face. I walked through the living room on the way to the back door and heard Susanne guffaw. Nobody respects my bravery!

She came out with me, through the back gate to the carport, and I realized I’d waited too long after sunset, because no matter how I squinted I couldn’t see either hive. Was it over here, or seven inches to the left? I didn’t want to miss, and I didn’t want to spray at the wood wildly, because that’s what amateur hornet killers do and OMG THEY STING PEOPLE FOR CRIPES SAKE.

Susanne was willing to stand a good fifteen feet behind me and shine her iPhone flashlight onto the top of the carport. The poor soul only had on a short sleeved shirt and thin summer pants. Of course, she wasn’t sweating like a stuck pig, either, but there I was with streams of perspiration gushing down my temples and fogging up my glasses. I breathed through the scarf, sounding in my own ears like Darth Vader. I pressed the trigger and realized that in fact, I was attempting to destroy flying stinging beings with what amounted to toxic silly string. A thin white stream of poison shot out from the canister and made a splashing sound on the nest, and the four hornets dropped to the ground, dead.

Whew.

Next I moved on to the smaller nest—I’d wanted to take out the bigger challengers first because like, strategy and stuff—and Susanne gave me light again. Again the milky substance crashed against the hive, but this time a hornet broke off and started buzzing in the air. Had I missed? Was it somehow immune to death?

It mattered not.

“Go, go go!” I yelled to Susanne, who ran through the gate like a jackrabbit. I ran down the alley behind our house to the street. Surely I could outrun a hornet! In my mind I saw myself jumping into a jake for safety. I had practiced just such a maneuver when I was a child, and had trained myself to the point of being able to hold my breath for one hundred and twenty-five seconds. The nearest lake to us was a twelve-minute drive away.

“I’ll meet you around the front!” I said, gripping the poison in my right hand like a football. In 99-degree heat I bolted down the sidewalk, around the corner, and up the concrete steps to our front door, the scarf trailing behind me like a really crappy cape, sweat stinging my eyes, and my feet feeling overheated and heavy.

Inside, I yanked off the hat, scarf, and sweatshirt in one wave of my hand.

“Did you get stung?” asked Susanne.

“No.”

“Good.”

“I got the nest.”

“Good.”

I walked into the kitchen, took off my boots, and put the poison back in the plastic bag from the store.

The next morning, I ran into my neighbor Denny, who lives on the other side of the alley.

“I bundled up last night and sprayed those hornets’s nests,” I said.

“Bundled up?”

I explained my outfit.

“Good for you, killing six hornets,” he said, and he patted me on the back.

No respect, no respect.

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