Polistes annularis; Dolichovespula maculata

A Polistes annularis (ringed paper wasp) forager stands on a rose leaf, closely inspecting its surface. Unusually, she holds all four of her wings raised and spread, rather than folding them along her back. Her rust-red markings and yellow legs shine brightly in the hot June sunlight, giving back an almost metallic gleam, and the tiny hairs that cover her carapace shine brightly in the light of the camera flash.
The same Polistes annularis forager prepares for takeoff – from the underside of a leaf. She seems totally unbothered to be hanging upside-down, and holds her body in an abdomen-high posture that enables her to beat her wings free of obstruction – this is why wasps’ back legs are so long. Her wings move so quickly that they’re only a blur, and through the nearer ones you can see her dark and slender abdomen.

She was looking for caterpillars, of which there were none, or at least none that I saw – she’d be far better at it, of course. She did find the honey I’d daubed on a few leaves of the rosebush, so either way, her trip wasn’t wasted. And I never knew they could take off upside down like this!

Folks often ask me just why I put so much effort into getting so close to wasps, and whether I’m not very afraid when I do. I’ve tried many times to answer questions like these, I think with greater success some times than others. But I can’t imagine ever being able to put into words the kind of beauty that’s visible in images like these – not least because it was making images like these that helped me first realize that I didn’t need to be afraid of wasps, anyway, not unless I did something to make them afraid of me.

Which is surprisingly hard to do! This next one, from 2021, isn’t a macro shot like the two above are. You’ll understand why, I think.

A bald-faced yellowjacket stands near the entrance of her family’s nest, seen head-on because she is intently watching the viewer. In warning posture, she would hold her wings raised, both ready for an attack flight and to make herself look larger and more imposing. Her wings are folded comfortably along her back.

This colony’s foundress built her family’s home upon my home – more specifically, under the eave of my house’s side porch. I didn’t realize they were there until I was on that porch; as best I can figure, I had my head less than a foot away from their nest before I ever realized they were there.

You’d think they would immediately attack, right? And I’ll admit, so would I have – granted, not too many people know wasps the way I do, but even I would’ve expected to elicit a response in defense of the nest, having carelessly come so close. Had it been a large colony, with a lot of babies to defend, I might have had a very uncomfortable afternoon! But in this case, they saw no need to object to my presence, and with my big 500mm birding lens I had the pleasure of exchanging level gazes with this handsome lady from just a few feet away.

Even a photo like this can’t really capture what that was like, of course. I’m glad to be able to share it, anyway.

Auplopus architectus metallicus

A congeneric of A. mellipes mellipes, featured in an earlier post; unlike her cousin shown there, this pompilid is strikingly brilliant in her coloring, even to the naked eye. It’s harder to see that way, of course; this individual was about 3/4″ (18mm) from frons to abdominal apex. Luckily, I happened to be very near and already watching for movement when she turned up.

Despite their diminutive size, these wasps are exemplary in both strength and endurance. The spider she’s captured certainly outmasses her, perhaps by a factor of two, yet I watched her haul her prey up and then down the waist-high cyclone fence that borders my backyard. The above shot was taken while she dragged the spider along its top rail, the below while she was on her way there. Except to groom herself, she rarely paused.

Pompilid wasps, including those in the genus Auplopus, prey on spiders, but not for their own sake. The wasp’s venom paralyzes but does not kill the spider, which the mother wasp then buries with one of her own eggs laid upon or near it. When the egg hatches, the spider serves the wasp larva as a hapless larder, providing all the nutrition it requires to grow through pupation and into its adult form.

Even among the famously diverse family Hymenoptera, parasitoid wasps such as this one are enormously varied in their life histories and habits. Each genus and often each species has a unique design of burrow. Most are solitary, but some are quasisocial. Most provision each larva with a single spider and, once sealing a burrow, never revisit it; some practice progressive provisioning, bringing a series of smaller prey and providing the larva a degree of maternal care unusual in solitary wasps. Most are satisfied to simply envenom a spider or other item of prey; the tribe Ageniellini, of which Auplopus is a member, are unique in removing some or all of their envenomed prey’s legs for easier handling, as can also be seen here.

Horrifying? Perhaps – if you’re a spider. How might beef cattle regard humans?

Vespula maculifrons; Auplopus mellipes mellipes

I was doing some yardwork last October, cleaning up the margin of my back patio with a manual edger, when I noticed that a couple of yellowjackets had started pacing along with the work. At first I was concerned about the possibility that I’d trespassed too near a nest, and had made them feel as if they needed to deal with me. But then I realized they weren’t interested in me at all, so much as in what I was doing – they stayed quite close to where I was working, often just a few inches from my ankles, and made repeated low passes over the freshly upturned earth.

After a little while, I decided not to worry about them, as they were very evidently not worrying about me, and continued with what I was doing. A little while later, when I was close to done with the work, it became quite clear just why their interest lay where it did: they were hunting. Luckily, I had my macro rig near to hand and ready to use, and so caught some good close shots of one of them (and a couple of her rather distant cousins) wrestling with prey quite a bit larger than herself.

This was taken with the lens objective element about six inches from the subject, and with three quite powerful front-mounted flash heads firing besides. As far as I could tell, she was so busy with her prey that she never noticed my presence – a habit I’ve observed before in other wasps, such as those pictured elsewhere on this site. But even when they aren’t so occupied, I have yet to see a wasp so much as show any notice that I was taking pictures of her, much less attempt to attack me for so doing.

I suppose I can understand why people get so exercised about yellowjackets, but I’ve never really seen the need. The only time one of them has ever given me trouble was the time when I was driving along the highway with my windows open, and one got caught in the slipstream and ended up on my lap – all unawares, I dropped my hand into my lap, and of course she stung me, because who wouldn’t? I just counted myself lucky that she’d landed on her back, and thus jabbed me in a fingertip, rather than anywhere else. Having achieved her goal of making me take my hand away, she promptly flew back out of the car again, and my finger was sore for a couple of days, and then it was fine.

I suppose it helps that I keep an eye out for wasps in general, appreciating them for their industriousness and their beauty, and so I’m prepared to notice and steer clear of anything that seems like it might be traffic to and from a yellowjacket nest. I think it might also help that I am not afraid of them, and thus don’t feel the need to behave in ways that make them afraid of me. Why be upset that social wasps should defend their homes? Humans do the same.

The other day, I was working in my home office – a small room with many windows, not all of which fit perfectly into their frames – when I discovered I had a visitor, a small pompilid of an unfamiliar species which I believe to have been in the genus Priocnemis have since identified as Auplopus mellipes mellipes. She’d gotten herself tangled in a bit of cat hair, and I felt that it was incumbent upon me as her host to help her out of the bind, which I did. Once that was done, and she’d settled down a bit from her earlier dismay, I encouraged her to climb onto my hand, hoping for a good picture. That didn’t work out – on the one hand, pompilids’ hunting behavior makes them necessarily vulnerable and they are therefore disinclined to spend too much time at rest, and on the other, I don’t think she cared to be standing on something that moved. But she didn’t seem unduly bothered by it, either, and saw no need to sting me, nor did I fear a sting; after all, what is a human hand to a wasp whose entire body is no longer than the last joint of that hand’s little finger?

After offering a small refreshment of sugar water, I took her out on the side porch to see her on her way, and she flew off cheerfully enough, no doubt in search of spiders.

Polistes metricus

It turns out that paper wasps are pretty chill! If you’re not a threat to them or their nest, and you’re also not something they want to eat, then they just don’t care about you, even if you insist on snapping flash pictures of them from six inches away.

If you are something they want to eat, that’s a different story. P. metricus, like most paper wasps, eats only nectar and soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars; the yellow-and-black P. dominula aside, they don’t have the jaws to deal with a hard carapace. But of such soft-bodied insects they are ferocious hunters, and I caught these shots among others when a few P. metricus individuals found a fall webworm nest near work a month ago.

I ended up being glad I’d gotten these shots while I had the chance. A couple days later, the fall webworm nest was gone.


He’s a big fuzzy goofus.

This was a lucky shot, caught while I was goofing around with my grandfather’s old pre-AI 50mm f/2 prime. It taught me the value of fast prime lenses. (But I still don’t have a modern one, yet.)

August 18, 2020: He was a big fuzzy goofus. After twenty years, it’s hard to say goodbye, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll say:

So long, buddy rough.
Thanks for everything.

Schenuit Tire, August 6

‘Next time’, I said, and would not disappoint – though ‘next time’ has proven further away than I’d imagined then it would.

This is – this was – the Schenuit Tire Company’s manufacturing plant, whence came many thousand tires, once upon a time. The company has long since ceased to trade, but there is aught of its history here to be seen, even after several fires which have not been kind to the structure.

I hear there are some developers with plans for this great ruin. I wish them all the fortune in the world of it – poor fortune, that is, and poor fortune I think they shall have. That the place still stands is sign enough they do not know what to do with it. I hope it goes on standing for years and decades more.

On televisions in hospital rooms

(Content advice: contemplation at length of severe pain and the nature of suffering; discussion of spousal abuse.)

I don’t know if it’s even a thing any more, now that no one can afford proper medical care in our wonderful cyberpunk-dystopia-aborning, but back when I was young and it was still possible to spend a significant amount of time in a hospital bed without going broke over it, you’d hear complaints about how the TV was always on in semi-private rooms, and always tuned to something stupid.

(For those under age thirty, “semi-private” means the room has two beds, with a curtain between them for when one or the other patient needs something done that warrants privacy. The TV is shared.)

I had a kidney infection, not so long ago – self-diagnosed, and self-treated with pharmaceutical antibiotics available inexpensively online via a regulatory loophole that I’m sure someone will very soon try to ban. I certainly can’t, and would not, and do not, recommend anyone reading this chance with her health in the fashion I describe chancing with mine! But while it is of terrible quality and overpriced, and got via the “open market” so called, I do have health insurance, and was prepared to fall back on it if after 48 hours I observed no improvement – fortunately for my finances, two days’ treatment out of a $50 bottle of amoxicillin sufficed to resolve the overt symptoms almost entirely, and the remainder of the two-week course was required only to ensure they stayed resolved.

But I’m not here to talk about playing doctor with myself. I am here to talk about pain. Because it turned out, to my dismayed surprise, that while a lower urinary tract infection is mainly just itchy and annoying and makes you have to pee a lot – when it gets to a kidney, it is agonizing.

To be sure, I had a worse three days, the time I had an abscessed molar over a holiday weekend, and couldn’t get to a dentist until Tuesday – in fact that’s a lie I chose to tell myself, because in truth what I had was a relationship so severely abusive that, where I had done my best to move heaven and earth and finally found succor for my spouse in her own similar agony some years prior, she would not be bothered to lift a finger in my aid – not even to forbear from insisting, successfully, that I accompany her an hour by car to Frederick and back for family photos, because this would save a few dollars on having them taken some time when I was not suffering. Because my face was not swollen, as hers had been, and mere tears, and whimpering, and clutching ice to my jaw, and the constant desperate scramble for fresh cold water with which to rinse my mouth and dull the pain a moment – for her, none of this had any meaning.

Not every abusive relationship is as overt and plain as every other, and not every abuser must raise a hand to inflict pain. Sometimes the most vile of cruelty is also the most subtle. But I’m not here to talk about that, either – only that I am of late no longer hiding what was done to me from myself, because if I do not face it down I permit it to retain its power over me. And the consequences of that are worse by far than to face it and find myself occasionally there again, when hateful memories long pushed aside spring still lively from their corners. There again most strongly but only for a moment, in which I may find a way to leave, and in the fullness of time leave for good – unpleasant to be sure, but far preferable to the other thing, to being in part trapped there always. I am finding the measure of such matters now, and finding it complicated; please excuse the interruption.

Where were we, then? Oh yes – a worse three days, that abscessed molar. But I had a worse four hours, trying to fight off a kidney infection – and I had them twice.

There’s something you don’t easily remember about pain like that, once it’s behind you – and if you’ve never experienced it, you just have no way to know. Past a certain threshold, pain like this begins to ablate consciousness, and your sense of duration with it.

I don’t mean you pass out from it – that would be a mercy! You remain aware – but your ability to reason starts to go, and what replaces it, to whatever extent and for whatever period it is suppressed, is only the experience of pain. To the extent severe and enduring pain takes from you your ability to think, it gives you in return the ability to suffer.

And because that’s the case, you start to have difficulty telling time, as well. Oh, sure – you can look at a clock and see that it’s 14:21 now, and remember that that means it was 14:20 a minute or so ago, and will be 14:22 a little while from now. You can look at the second hand of a watch, and see that it goes around at just the same rate it ever has. It’s just that between every pair of seconds it traverses, there lies a tiny infinity of time outside time, in which there is only you and the pain. And though you can remember, sort of, a time without pain, and sort of confide that there will come such a time again, you can’t believe that. Not while you’re hurting. While you’re hurting, it feels like forever.

It felt like forever to me, both times. The first, during the afternoon, was bad enough. The second happened at night, and that was much worse; I felt I had just gotten to sleep, a respite I badly needed after the struggles of the day, when I felt myself being dragged back awake by the same feeling I’d had before – as if some awful hand had reached inside my back, and gathered up a fistful of my tender guts, and begun just to squeeze and to squeeze and to squeeze. You can feel it coming on, like that. And every second you hope is the second when it stops getting worse, and for far too many of them, it is not. I think it’d be less cruel if it were more of a surprise, but such things are not left to us to decide.

It was more than I could bear. The pain was plenty bad enough, but I was so tired – I felt tired enough to die. Not suicidal, and I certainly was not; I’m sure there exists pain severe enough to make me so, and may God forfend I should ever discover it firsthand. No, I mean only that, lying there that night as the pain came on, I wouldn’t have minded dying, exactly, because the dead are beyond suffering. I knew I wasn’t dying, of course, and the part of me that could still believe in a world without agony was glad of it. But the part of me that could hardly think but only suffer wished very badly, if distantly, that it should be otherwise.

(Do I shock you? Perhaps I do, and if so, I am sorry, and I hope very much that such things as I say here forever retain their power to horrify you – because as long as they can do so, it means you have not known such pain as I describe. On the day that blissful ignorance should disappear, you’ll be right there with me, have no doubt. But I hope very much that day never comes to you.)

I had already taken ibuprofen and Tylenol, as much as I dared risk with undoubtedly impaired renal function – taken them for all the good they might do, and a forlorn hope that proved; they were punching far too far above their weight. I could think of nothing else with which to try to ameliorate the pain; it would now have of me what it chose, I knew, for as long as it chose to do so. I could only try to take my mind off it, for what tiny comfort that might offer.

My iPad was to hand, on the bedstand beside me. I pulled it to me, flicked it on, started a playlist of Retsupurae creepypasta readings, and flipped it facedown next to my pillow. I couldn’t hold it up and watch, you see? I had not the wherewithal. But to listen took no effort.

And in so doing, I discovered something both picayune and wonderful. Because it did help! Not much, of course. Nothing non-narcotic could have helped me much just then. But it did enough – enough to remind me that time was passing, enough to make the difference between a million million tiny infinities of pain, and something that hurt just as much but lacked quite the same horrifying power over me. All I had to do, to escape a measure of the horror in which I was caught up, was remember I had ears, and try to listen to what I was hearing.

What it was didn’t matter much. Just that it was calm and quiet and gentle – Slowbeef’s voice is a fine one to hear from one’s sickbed – beyond that, it meant nothing, and I could track only for moments at a time in any case before a wave of stronger pain crested over me and forced me all the way back into my suffering body for a little while. What it was I was hearing didn’t matter – that it was: that was what mattered.

And after what was most of four hours but – unlike the earlier paroxysm which seemed to last forever – felt like both forever and only a little while, I found myself beginning to remember how to assemble the fragments I was tracking into something like the coherent narrative in which they originated, and by this touchstone I knew I must be beginning to come out of it again – that, though the pain had not yet begun to recede from my body, it was beginning to relax its terrible grip on my mind.

And after forever and only a little while more, I found myself remembering that the jokes I was hearing were jokes, and were funny, and that humor is a thing that exists – and realized I was a little closer to out of it than before.

And so it went until the pain itself began to fade. But even before it did, I had the blessing of knowing it soon would – and even before that, I had the smaller, but still very real, blessing of a tiny way in which to escape a little – of a link to the reality of a world not wracked and corrupted with pain, and the hope that I would find a way back there, once the pain had had its fill of me.

Silence would deny me that. And that is why there are televisions in hospital rooms, so often tuned to something stupid: for those entrapped by agony, they are a lifeline to the world.

We must not begrudge such things, inconvenient though we find them while not ourselves in dire need. For the world we share does not know how to be kind, and so if there is to be any kindness in this world for any of us, it must be we ourselves who choose to create it. A little kindness is a kindness all the same – and, through our example, perhaps the world may itself learn to be kind.

We dare not set any other example for the world, save at our terrible peril – for to do so risks that we instead create a world for ourselves in which the only hope for surcease of suffering lies indeed in death, and our only solace in life is that no hell is eternal.

Small travelers in an antique land

(Begun in response to this HN comment.)

When I was small, my father had me along to work one Saturday, because he couldn’t think of where else to put me. Since he worked in a broadcast facility, I had no end of interesting technology with which to occupy myself while he worked, and was still happily so engaged when he finished up and left. Once I’d got around to noticing he had gone, and not yet knowing my home phone number, I asked the receptionist to call and ask him what I should do. His answer, which she relayed verbatim, was “hoof it”. So I did. Not entirely without dismay, seeing as it was a bit rough to have been just straight up ditched like that; I may well have sniffled a bit, but by God, if “hoof it” was the order of the day, then hoof it I most certainly would.

I was most of the way home when he found me; apparently the receptionist had called back in some dismay of her own to report that I had not grasped what apparently was intended to be a joke, and had instead turned on my tiny heel and marched my pint-sized self straight out the exit door. I suppose one must be rather broad in one’s humor when one’s audience is a five-year-old; I do not recall at that age being particularly at home with subtlety. On the other hand, like most of my father’s jokes, this one was not particularly funny, so perhaps I may be excused for having taken it straight.

He was furious when he found me, and I had no idea why – once I’d got over the initial upset and realized that I actually knew very well how to get home from where I was, I had begun to enjoy myself a great deal, in the sense of self-sufficiency and ability to achieve seemingly grown-up things on one’s own that I think all children must cherish – certainly I did! And it was rare, at such a young age, to find an opportunity to experience the world unmediated. I often felt myself to move uncomprehending through a world made for and by giants, full of artifacts as pregnant with wonder as towering in their illegibility. And I often distantly resented the pathetically pared-down and brightly colored offerings which were thought appropriate for one of my age – inchoate as it could only be with but a couple years’ knowledge of the written language, I was angry that my time was so often wasted, and that I had no option to make it otherwise. So to walk among those artifacts alone was a benison beyond price, especially as I was rather sickly then, which made such opportunities rarer than they would have otherwise been. Years later, I would feel I must know something of what Shelley’s traveler must have felt.

But since he got the receptionist’s second call, he’d been driving terrified all over town, presumably expecting to find me being gnawed apart by bears. Adult experience gives me to understand that his real fear was that of being seen to be a poor enough father that he forgot he had a son, but that’s not something one can be expected to intuit at the age of five. And I don’t suppose it must have helped his mood that I’d recognized his car coming and done my best to hide before he got close enough to see me – this in particular left him wounded and uncomprehending, but it made perfect sense to me, and I was rather irked in my own miniature right; having been told to find my own way home, and having then got over the upset this caused me and not only made a credible start of it but seen the task nearly to completion, why should he now forbid that I finish what he had himself bade me start?

In later years, I would learn that this was rather typical of the man, who had never yet learned that the consequences of his actions, however unintended, were as much to his account as the actions themselves had been. But in the time and place where these things occurred, those actions of his were themselves atypical in the extreme. No one, I later learned, understood why he’d been upset at all with my display of ability to get myself home on foot over a distance of a bit less than a mile, or why he’d imagined me to be in some terrible danger posed by the rural and rather sleepy university town in which I then lived. Such self-sufficiency in so young a child was to be prized and fostered at every opportunity, and however things might be in the undoubted sink of New England depravity from which my damnyankee father had come, hadn’t he been here long enough to realize that this was a place where people looked out for one another’s kids, instead of throwing them in a bear pit?

But I get the sense lately that such overblown fears are less the exception any more than the norm, here in the US at least. No doubt kids now being raised under such conditions will turn out by and large just fine, as most kids persistently do despite whatever nonsense happens to characterize the age. But I do feel it’s a shame nonetheless, and a loss, that what in early childhood made me an occasional object of pity – that I wasn’t trusted to do things on my own that other children were trusted to do – should since have so become the norm that now there are things no child, by force of law, may be trusted to do – that all today’s travelers in antique lands must be always chaperoned by giants, until they finally become giants themselves. And wonder? Breath of the Wild will have to do, I suppose, for children who are never allowed to feel it.