I never intended to build a Death Machine, but sometimes life takes a turn and there you are: doing the unintended. I wasn’t expecting to be attacked by an angry swarm of Yellowjackets, either — and if you’re unfamiliar with the sting of these nasty little wannabe Murder Hornets, you’re better off.
So there I was, stoically mowing down a thicket of four-foot high weeds on the steep hillside below the house to create what the local fire department calls a “defensible space” — in essence, a land-moat designed to leave nothing flammable around the structure. The last few summers have seen catastrophic wildfires do horrendous damage up here in the hill country north of San Francisco, where we’re forced to take the threat of fire very seriously. With a noisy weed-whacker slung over my shoulders, and wearing a protective plastic face shield so scratched and dulled from heavy use that I could hardly see anything while facing into the sun, all was going well until I felt a sudden sharp, intense pain just above the knuckle of one gloved hand.
“Must have hit a rock,” was my immediate thought. As anyone who’s run a weed-eater in rough country will understand, this was a reasonable assumption. Those whirling nylon strings constantly send all sorts of small, hard objects flying out at high speed — sticks, rocks, whatever — and some of these missiles inevitably hit home. That’s why I wear knee-high boots, coveralls, gloves, and that thoroughly scratched face shield.
But man, this one really hurt. It stung “like the dickens,” as my sainted mother used to say — her generation of women being denied the freedom to blurt “Fuck! That motherfucker stings like a fucking motherfucker!” — but this time the pain didn’t fade: instead, it just got worse. Another sharp stab further up my arm finally prompted me to look down at my gloved hand, where a Yellowjacket was on the attack, mandibles firmly clamped onto the glove, repeatedly stabbing its needle-sharp stinger right through the fabric into my suddenly screaming flesh.
Note to self: next time, wear a pair of thick leather gloves rather than these flimsy three-for-ten-dollars Home Depot specials.
I bolted like a deer, without conscious thought, running as fast as my legs and seven-decades on this troubled planet would allow — which was a lot quicker than I’ve moved at any point over the past twenty years. Fortunately, the Yellowjackets did not pursue, allowing me to retreat inside the house rather than sprint through the woods like a Sasquatch on meth with his hair on fire. My left hand was already beginning to swell, as was my upper arm, so I swabbed both with rubbing alcohol and applied a cold compress, then consulted Google. Not being allergic to bee stings, it seemed that I was in no danger, but my hand and arm would remain swollen, painful, and itching for the next three days. Every time I had to wash hands (and we’re all doing a LOT of that these days), it hurt like hell.
The Yellowjackets won the battle, but I was determined to win the war — the empire would strike back — so once again to Google I went, where an array of poison sprays promising to slay Yellowjackets were advertised. None of those would do, for three reasons: First, there’s a lovely little bay at the bottom of this hill, and I since I often barbecue oysters harvested in those waters, I won’t be using any kind of poison that could possibly leach into the watershed. Second, without wearing a full bee suit, no sane person could stand close enough to hit the target — the opening of that nest being smaller than a quarter — with a sufficient quantity of poison spray to eliminate the nest before getting stung repeatedly.
Third — see Reason Number One: no poison, period.
My eco-friendly options seemed limited to plugging the Hell-Mouth of the hive with a bottle or bowl — and hoping there wasn’t a second entrance/exit to the hive — or vacuuming out the Yellowjackets, a tactic reportedly adopted by some environmentally conscious pest exterminators. The bowl idea was out, since the nest was dug into the dirt at the base of a sprawling fern that would prevent anything like a good seal. A bottle might work, and I toyed with the idea of shoving a half-empty fifth of truly god-awful Trader Joes “blended scotch whisky” (possibly the worst ten dollars I ever spent — this swill tastes like Sterno mixed with methanol) to intoxicate the Yellowjackets and render them unable to tunnel out until it was too late.
Another notion was to use a large bottle of cheap garlic-infused olive oil — now 12 years past its sell-by date — in the same manner, thus blocking the entrance of the nest and drowning those Yellowjackets in oil that was surely rancid by now.
The downside of both approaches was obvious — I’d have to get very up-close and personal to that nest, and if anything went wrong, would deeply regret the error. Yellowjackets bed down after dark, but a late night scouting mission with a flashlight confirmed that sentries were guarding the mouth of the hive at all hours, ready to rouse the troops and defend the nest from invaders.
I wasn’t ready to call in the pros — this was personal, now — and since I had a small “Stinger” shop-vac, maybe I could. Trouble is, the intake hose is only four feet long, and I had no intention of getting so close to that nest again, so off to the local hardware store I went for ten feet of one-inch diameter PVC pipe, which fit nicely into the shop-vac hose. With a strip of blue painter’s tape to seal the fit, I was ready to mount a counter-attack.
I waited until well after dark, then very carefully placed the business end of the PVC pipe as close to the Hell-Mouth of the hive as I dared, using a few bricks to hold it steady on the steep, uneven hillside. After making sure the switch was turned on, I crept away. The next morning, with the sun high and warm enough to fully activate the hive, I plugged the cord into an outlet on the deck, and the shop-vac begin to whine.
After waiting for twenty minutes, I eased down the hill to take a look, but instead of the great buzzing mass of angry Yellowjackets I’d expected, saw nothing unusual: they were cruising in and out of the Hell-Mouth as if all was normal. From a distance, it appeared that I hadn’t placed the pipe close enough to the hive opening to hoover up flying Yellowjackets, but I left it running for another ninety minutes anyway, then untaped the PVC pipe and quickly shoved the end of the input hose into the exhaust port to trap any Yellowjackets inside. Only then was it safe to turn off. I put the shop-vac inside a black plastic garbage bag and left it on the deck to let the hot sun to do the dirty work. Two days later, I found more than two hundred dead Yellowjackets inside, many of which seemed to have died while trying to sting the dirty filter to death.
Although my first attempt wasn’t a total failure, it hadn’t noticeably diminished the number of Yellowjackets buzzing in and out of the Hell-Mouth. I saw no safe way to get that PVC pipe closer, so back to the hardware store I went for a 90 degree “elbow” joint. With a two inch piece of the pipe cut from the end, then inserted into the elbow joint, I slipped the assembly onto the end of the pipe and taped it all up. Once again I waited until dark to slide the pipe in position, and was now able to rotate the 90 degree intake to point directly into the Hell-Mouth, being oh-so careful not to alarm the sentries and awaken the hive.
The next morning, I plugged it in for two more hours, and again bagged the shop-vac in the sun. Many fewer Yellowjackets were coming and going now — the Death Machine had severely depleted the population of the hive this time — but there were still plenty left, with the queen deep inside birthing new workers as fast as she could. After sun-baking the Shop-vac for two more days, I opened it up to find that the modified pipe had indeed inhaled more Yellowjackets this time — between two and three hundred, which meant there were now roughly five hundred fewer in the hive.
I could see light at the end of this tunnel. A couple more sessions with the Death Machine might doom the hive. Without enough workers to bring in food, the queen should not be able to survive — and absent a queen, there would be no more hive.
I felt an odd and very unexpected tinge of sadness at watching so few Yellowjackets exit and enter the Hell-Mouth. Although they’re distinctly alien creatures in every aspect and behavior, they hadn’t randomly attacked me, but were simply defending their home. To me, I was just weed-whacking, but to them I was a Godzilla-sized behemoth wielding a horrendously noisy engine of death, and they’d reacted as Mother Nature intended. If that nest had been a hundred feet further down the hill from my house — as was a similar nest I’d spotted during the spring while trimming trees on the slope below — I’d have left it alone in the spirit of live and let live, but here they were, barely twenty feet from my front door. Too close for comfort.
Too close for anything.
So I’d built and deployed a Death Machine — a weapon of mass Yellowjacket destruction — and in so doing felt a melancholy kinship with the late Robert Oppenheimer, who after the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb, said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
So it goes. It’s hard to get through 70 years on this planet without wreaking considerable havoc, intentional or otherwise, bringing misery and death to many of our fellow creatures.
I was planning my final, take Mt. Suribachi assault on the hive when a neighbor called. I’d appraised her of what was going on, warning her that the hive I’d spotted last spring — on her property — might still be there. She reported that if I could find and mark that hive, the county would send someone out to fully eradicate both hives for free. This was news to me, so down the hill I went, but her nest had vanished. Another twenty minutes of searching turned up another hive, however, this one much larger than mine, with multiple entrances and thousands of Yellowjackets. I got as close as I dared, then dropped a metal fence post on the ground to mark it.
Two days later a truck pulled up driven by a cheerful woman named Teresa, who donned a full bee suit, loaded up her supplies — devices to deploy a non-toxic desiccant powder — and went to work. A few minutes later, she was done with my nest, explaining that the desiccant would dehydrate the adult Yellowjackets, the queen, and any juveniles that emerged after the application. By the next day, she assured me, the hive would be dead.
She was right. I took this photo twenty four hours later, which shows the Hell-Mouth plugged with — and I presume, full of — the desiccant powder.
She then treated the larger nest on my neighbor’s land — receiving one painful sting in the process — thus rendering it sterile, and that was the end of our Yellowjacket problem.
I didn’t have the satisfaction of vanquishing the Yellowjackets all by myself, but “satisfaction” really isn’t the right word. Killing is killing, no matter how you look at it, and not something to celebrate. Besides, my improvised Death Machine had disposed of at least five hundred Yellowjackets, and certainly made the task of finishing the job much easier.
They say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but this experience taught me a few things, courtesy of the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.
Still, I’m left with one unanswered question: what the heck am I going to do with that half-empty bottle of god-awful “blended scotch” now?