Thursday, December 07, 2006

Washer Bee

AND MY DAD SAID: “I was working in the garage, up on Maple Street,” we were living at the time on the farm, renting the place, far enough out in the country that it was enjoyable, quiet, fun. “And, as I turned around this wasp collided with me right in the fore head. Wham! Like gettin’ hit with a hammer. Knocked me flat on my back. My dad--your grandfather--picked me up off the floor and had to take me the emergency room to get me back on my feet.”

We all have heard that a bee sting really hurts. Some of us even know it. Even Poo-bear knows that. A couple of years ago I was mowing the yard and passed over a swarm of yellowjackets who had nested down in a cravasse in the ground where the slope was pulling away, and they charged me, from behind, and attacked my shins and calves. To say it hurt is beyond polite words to describe. So when I was doing the laundry the other day, in the basement of my house, I noticed something come loose from the clothes as I pulled them from the washer. Any other time it would be a button or dime. Or pen cap, meaning I had a mess in the laundry to clean up again. But I saw, noticed, suspected, something fling off, down to the floor, from a handful of clothes. So I looked to one side and tried to pile the clothes to the other side, making an aim towards the basket (I air dry everything.) The floor grey, the room dark, I only have one light bulb going and the door was open letting in a shaft of light across the floor and I didn’t see right off what I was looking for. On the other side of the light from the door, making the floor a bit brighter, was a yellow jacket. I stopped. Growled. I didn’t want to get stung but it wasn’t moving either. Was that what was in my clothes? Would that make it mad? At me? It wasn’t my fault!

Well, I could either step on it, be cautious about the moves it might make, or ignore it. The laundry waits for no one.

The bee--a yellow jacket--was confused--but not as we understand confusion. There was light, at the door although doors were not a concept it could understand. It did not lack land legs--so to speak-- thanks to the ride through the centrifuge giving it that tilted effect, like walking on two legs a different size than the two others, or three per side, in this case or, maybe it was from having spent some time trapped atop the agitator during the spin cycle. Too much water and it’s wings (there are four) stuck together. Too much soapy air would not be good for anything to breath. When you breath little tiny modules of air, each one must be reasonably clean. But it apparently had taken a ride down in the clothes, in the water, in the soap, and been squashed under (or maybe aside?) by soaked blue jeans in the spin cycle would at least suffocate any higher animal order. And shuttled back and forth during the wash cycle, buffeted between sox and sheets.

Then the blinding flash of the sun, through the open door, attractive but not warm. Actually the floor was a bit warmer than the air, and a lot warmer than the cold water. The shake out had provided a brief rush of chill as the moist air evaporated into the laundry room. It was immune to the aroma of the clothes--was the ride any better in the whites only?

So its only reflex was to do--nothing. For the moment. It didn’t register the human, or the washing machine or really, even, the light through the door. It’s movitivated by scent and warmth. Too much of either is not better than too little of either. The detergent must not have been perfumed. And the moist air of the basement laundryroom held no draw.

But, also lacking any reason to act otherwise, it was not agressive. Or mad. What was there to get mad at? The washing machine was there, but did not threaten or trigger fear. The machine--a concept way beyond anything the bee might conisder--was just, well, a lump of something not very interesting. No food. No pollen. No nothing.

Several moments passed as the temperature of the sunbeam heated a shaft of air, as the precise arrangement for life for the yellow jacket came into context, as the narrow band of ecology that the bee requires for life sank, almost literaly, to his level. As all these inplays began to unfold, the bee aroused.

And departed.

The common yellow jacket here in the east (vespula flavopilosa) is a hardy soul. They swarm just about any place and human property rights are not their concern. During pollination--which is effectively all summer--the yellow jacket is out on the search during the day and settled in for the night. That they get in your home or car or clothes is not uncommon. They follow the scent and haven’t quite understood about doors and windows getting closed behind them. And, actually, they are not very good flyers. All bees (and flies) tend towards an up-and-forward motion, down and back only from slowing their wing beat rather than changing the wing stoke or gliding. That puts a strain on their energy supply which makes refueling important. Being small they can turn corners and exit a blind spot fairly easily but once covered up, for example by clothes in a hamper, they sit resignedly either from an understanding of their predicament or from a lack of energy.

It is not unusual for them to fly into clothes, particularly on the clothesline. They sense their target beyond the sheets and do not recognize the sheet the way mammals or fishes or the birds see objects. Anything in their flight path is fair game if it’s warm-- our bodies or a bear’s or a dog’s or the kids’. For one to understand that a bee could get caught up in the laundry and dumped in the wash is not unlikely but probably not something the yellow jacket comprehends as a thrill ride. Williamson and Scott reported as far back as 1937 a yellow jacket that landed, for no known reason, on the blade of a yard-sized windmill and just hung on for dear life until the windmill stopped and then, the tale goes, it took several moments for the insect to right itself, probably from being dizzy even for a brain not much larger than a sunflower seed, and fly off.

There are also reports (Downy; Smithson; Carlsdan; others) of home owners who flood a ground nest with water only to flush a hive of very angry yellow jackets on a wave of the water. To the citizens’ chagrin, once dried out the yellow jackets just re-swarm as if nothing happened. Most homeowners don’t realize the yellow jackets float on the flood or when a heavy dew sets or on those rainy days all they do is surf until they can beach themselves and then, not using a thinking process as we understand it, they have not option but to wait and dry out. That’s if they leave the hive at all as has been my experience to see my back yard swarm arrive back home a half hour before a good hard rain. As if they feel the low pressure and the humidity.

Unless water is virtually injected into their lungs what happens is they go into a stupor, a very strong suspended state, involuntarily, and only when the “air” becomes dryer and warmer do they breath again. That’s one of the reasons yellow jackets are so hard to kill. That this yellow jacket survived is not surprising.

I’d like to know how if it enjoyed the ride!


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