It was a typical mid-August day in southern Illinois: 95 degrees, a heat index of 104, and an apple pie was in the oven. Two of our granddaughters, ages seven and nine, were
staying over on a summer day. My wife, two granddaughters, and my dog — a mostly white golden-doodle with golden ears — alternated our play between outside and inside. Sweat covered bodies and my dog’s rapid-fire panting dictated our activities.
My seven-year-old granddaughter asked my wife what was in one of our trees. There, hanging within reach, was a hornet’s nest as big as a basketball with hundreds of hornets flying in and out, doing whatever hornets do. (I later learned that a mature hornets nest in late summer can have as many as seven hundred hornets.) We quickly retreated to the inside of our house where I instructed the girls to stay away from the tree, and what could happen if the hornets came after them — multiple butt stings that would penetrate their skin like nails in a pine board. My granddaughters, with their saucer-sized eyes, took in everything that I said. They would stay away for now, and most likely would need psychotherapy in later years.
Being a seventy-two-year-old man, I had been taught that it was the man’s responsibility to protect his family. It wouldn’t have been right for me to insist that my wife take care of the hornet’s nest. So, I did what all old, educated men do. I went to my office, turned on the computer, and began to google — how to destroy a hornet’s nest before they destroy you. Okay, what kind of hornet are we dealing with, I thought. Ah, there it is: a vespa crabro, a european hornet originally introduced into the United States, one of twenty hornet species found in the US. My backyard hornets, as I call them, are one to one-and-a-half inches long strapped with two pairs of wings, six legs, and boast a reddish brown color.
The hornet’s lightweight nest, an engineering feat by any definition, is constructed by a mixture of the hornet’s salvia and pieces of wood fiber. Granted my backyard hornets are quite impressive, but their stings are something to behold. Unlike the ordinary bee that is limited to a single sting, this baby can sting you multiple times, leaving a nasty venom behind. The symptoms can leave the victim with a fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, convulsions, and possibly death if you have an allergic reaction. Holy shit, that’s what I thought. There was a mixture of testosterone and fear racing through my brain. Oh, and forgive me. There was a sentence or two about the hornet’s attributes to humanity — they eat insects that can become pests to your habitat, contributing to a healthy ecosystem. And I’m suppose to worry about these flying varmints that might drill holes into my exterior?
If I am to destroy the nest, which most articles advise against, I should follow a recommended procedure: approach the nest in darkness while the worker hornets sleep; use a flashlight with a red lens; wear quite shoes, boots would be best; thick rubber gloves; long sleeves and long pants made with thick material; and above all, don’t wake up the hornets. Oh, by the way, each year forty people in Illinois die from hornet stings. But that most likely happens to allergic people or old people like myself.
There is a time when a man has to check his bravery, or admit he is a “chicken shit.” I knew this was my moment. Still, I decided that I should approach this from a more intellectual standpoint. Facts: I’m seventy-two-year-old, two back surgeries within the past eighteen months, three face cancers surgically removed two weeks ago. Okay, candy-ass Franklin, go hire someone. But then, almost miraculously, the next morning changed everything. There, lying under the tree was the nest, possibly knocked down by one sick or dead raccoon. I shared the news with my wife, making us feel content in the fact that the hornet problem was gone.
Later in the day my wife told me that half of the hornet’s nest was still hanging from the tree. I ran outside and took a look. Dammit, I whispered. I didn’t want to disturb the hundreds of hornets working on the nest. Something came over me, like a wave of bravery or possibility a big bunch of stupidity. Whatever, I was pissed. “Go into the house,” I told my wife. “I’m going to take care of this fucking nest. “Be careful,” she said, as she ran into the house to see if my life insurance policy was still in effect.