Throughout my life, bees, wasps and I have had an uneasy relationship. The presence of stinging insects usually kicks in a healthy flight-or-fight response, one that only as an adult I have come to control.
My father’s honeybee hives sat at the edge of the woods, near the property line, facing a large expanse of “pasture” – a grassy field – that never saw a grazing animal. As a teen, it was my job to mow the ¼-acre plot.
Sitting atop the riding mower, I circled the field, spiraling towards the center. With no trees or bushes to obstruct their flight paths, the bees followed long low track lines across the grass. Sooner or later, one would collide with me, catching in my hair, unable to free itself. My immediate response was to bat at it, crushing it but not before it had inflicted several stings. (They say that honeybees sting only once, don’t believe it!) I lobbied hard for hazardous duty pay to no avail.
My current yard is too small to house honeybees but it is home to an interesting array of tenants. Wrens occupy the age-old birdhouse once more and robins fledged three babies in a hanging plant basket on the front porch. Bugs of all sorts are not strangers.
One evening, two large insects hovered over a maple log set on end in my driveway. These bugs were unlike anything I had ever seen. Six needle-thin legs supported the three-inch long bodies, dappled in brown and yellow. Each appeared to have a long black “tail” protruding more than three inches from its abdomen. This had the menacing look of a stinger to me. The sight caused that old knee-jerk reaction; I retreated behind the metallic safety of my SUV. The visitors, though, weren’t particularly interested in me I discovered. The focus of their attention was the log and with each passing minute, the feelings of uneasiness faded. From my initial vantage point about 10 feet away, I circled the log, moving closer and closer, observing them from every angle. Fascination and curiosity had gained the upper hand – these creatures were strange and new. What would they do next?
These odd-looking visitors could easily have been cast as extras in an “Alien” movie. I had to find out what they were. Dr. Phil Pellitteri of the UW Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab answered my questions. He identified it as a species of Ichneumoid wasp. The body and ovipositor of the giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) may extend more than five inches. Great! A giant wasp with a stiletto stinger – a nightmare embodied. But, these insects do not sting and are considered beneficial. Their main prey is the pigeon tremex horntail (Tremex columba), another non-stinging wasp, a tree borer.
Check out this Ichneumoid in action:
My fear of bees has receded with time; the gut reactions dulled. Bees and I have come to an understanding: most of the time, these insects will leave people alone unless provoked and I do my utmost to maintain that status quo. The Ichneumon wasps that visited took this awareness to another level. These alien-looking creatures, coupled with the horntail, participate in a complex natural history, one inextricably dependent upon the other. Knowledge has brought a deeper understanding and curiosity has taken the place of fear. One step in a life cycle dance played out before me, leading to a truer appreciation of Nature’s wondrous relationships.