Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Killing Things - Difficult Choices in the Garden

Warning:  If you are at all queasy reading about or looking at wasps, go no further.  If you are sensitive to the sight of a wasp nest that has been sprayed with poison, move along.  I'm writing about a difficult choice I made here, and I'm using my somewhat graphic photos because it felt dishonest not to.

The agaves...  Oh, the agaves.  They got larger than I thought they would faster than I thought they should. The ones I tested by growing in deep shade gained size more slowly but they all pupped prolifically.

Curbside, in full sun, the agaves are now presenting a physical hazard to pedestrians on our side of the street. Of particular concern, their potential to snag unwary elementary school children, trudging wearily up the steep hill in front of our house weekday afternoons after their bus stops at our corner. Agaves are hogging all the sunny spots, blocking the sprinkler system, extending their heavy and dangerously serrated leaves in every direction. They've simply got to go.
I was barely fifteen minutes into the removal process, sawing off agave leaves with enthusiasm and relief to finally be getting started.  Just as I began to attack the right hand side of my inaugural clump, the jiggling motion unleashed a large swarm of Polistes bellicosus, yellow and brown paper wasps.

They came speeding out, flying directly at me. I backed away equally speedily (adrenaline apparently a great lubricant for a "mature" lady's joints) and with a bit of flapping and squawking, managed to not get stung.  As I retreated ever further away, the wasps kept coming out, circling in agitated fashion. The "Bellicosus" in their name turns out to be predictively descriptive.

Regular readers may recall I was doing pruning recently on the downhill side of the driveway when I was stopped in my tracks by the presence (and agitated behaviors) of wasps of two different types in other nests.
The first was a Polistes bellicosus nest and the other belonged to red wasps, Polistes carolinas.  I managed to get the bare minimum of work done that day, approaching plants to prune from a different vantage point, and the rest of that job I relegated to an "after it freezes" timeline to avoid further disturbance or the need for eradication.
Unfortunately this job, removing the agave clumps, just won't wait that long. Unlike with bees, there are no wasp keepers to call to relocate a colony.  My hand was forced.  Sadly, I realized this nest and the wasps defending it had to go.  I reluctantly got the appropriate spray, and went back out to drench the nest, doing my best to assure the wasps were at least killed quickly.
As it was now late in the morning there were other wasps returning at intervals from foraging to their now dripping nest. They circled but seemed to understand not to land.  Polistes wasps are social, and provide many benefits to the garden.  Unless you are messing around close to their nest in some way they deem potentially threatening, they are not aggressive and co-exist peacefully with people and pets alike.

While I used to feel slightly nervous in their presence, now I welcome their ongoing patrols for pests to take back to the young in their nests. From what I've read, the spared foragers from the nest I destroyed will either go out to start their own nest or join a sister's nest as subordinates.  As I stood watch from a safe distance, I felt both defeated and sorrowful.  I say I garden for wildlife, and here I was, taking life.  It was and still is unsettling and unpleasant.
There are those of you out there who will strongly feel I was wrong to poison the nest.  (I first wrote that sentence using several different euphemisms but poison is what I used and poison is what I did.) Life is life.  An argument can be made that I have no right to kill insects when they were only defending their nest and young.  As a mother, I hope I would do no less.

There are also those of you out there who will think me silly to be bothered by killing a nest of wasps.  These are not human beings after all, they are insects. There are plenty more wasps where these came from.  I know of at least a dozen other nests and have no doubt there are others I have yet to encounter, all within the bounds of our small suburban lot.  The two nests I discovered further down the hill were both spared after all, and some might find that a more than reasonable compromise.
I'm fairly certain once I'm able to replant the soon-to-be cleared areas I'll rediscover the joy gardening more often brings, with its focus on growth and life.  I understand wild creatures live and die all around us every day.

I just don't like being the direct cause of their dying.


Tina said...

It's a hard choice, especially if you garden for wildlife--which you do. You didn't and don't take the decision to kill the nest lightly and it's not your typical method to wantonly kill critters just because they're inconveniently in your way. I appreciate the honesty of this post and the difficult decision you made and respect that, in order to improve your garden situation, the wasps in that nest had to be killed. Take heart that your new plant choices, presumably some regularly flowering and berrying plants, will produce more sustenance for wildlife, including surviving wasp species.

TexasDeb said...

Tina: I was a little surprised at how difficult this post was to write. I was sorely tempted to skip over the process bits and rather focus on some sort of before and after piece noting the intent - increased variety of life supported by more varied plantings. The fact is the agaves (which I was also quite conflicted about removing - they are alive too after all), while not proffering pollinator support via blossoms, do offer quite a bit of shelter and structure for all sorts of critters attempting to avoid interference from predators (and/or gardeners...).

The nest I destroyed is the largest I've ever seen on our property. Reading that wasps preferentially nest in spots that proved successful in seasons past, I believe successive nests have been built there, invisible and protected, for years. It is highly likely many of the smaller nests I garden around routinely are populated by related offspring. I take some small comfort that immediately behind the agave clump in question is a small bird planted yaupon which is listed as a preferential nest site, though I hope rebuilding won't happen until next year when I won't be lurching around in proximity!

Rock rose said...

You are too kind hearted. Having been the recipient of stings from these devils I take no prisoners. I have a bad reactions to their venom which sometimes cause swelling right up to my elbow. They always return so I am not too concerned about their diminishing population. They need to be better behaved. Snakes now are a different matter. I don't bother killing them.

Anonymous said...

Measuring a project once, the wasps surprised me and it felt like nails being driven into my leg! Still remembering that, I guess I'm calloused to some dying given their numbers. Most interesting, is you thought about it in your last line -

"I just don't like being the direct cause of their dying."

Kris Peterson said...

I'm sorry that this choice was forced upon you and I can empathize with your dismay at killing off the nest but I have no doubt you made the right decision. As the Agave posed a hazard to schoolchildren and other walkers-by, so probably did the wasp nest. My husband and I poisoned a nest of paper wasps right outside our bedroom window once and I recall how I felt about that. I don't like wasps - I've been stung too often to have any fondness for them - but I can appreciate the role they play in the ecosystem and keep a respectful distance from whenever I can but that's not always possible.

TexasDeb said...

Jenny/RRose: If I had allergy issues I'd have felt justified on that basis alone. Allergic reactions are not inconsequential. But I'm not reactive and didn't get stung. I used to be nervous around wasps until I learned more about how protecting their nest is what triggers aggression and also about how beneficial they are in the garden. After that I was a little embarrassed to have felt animosity towards them for so long.

It has been the same with snakes for me. I used to be uniformly afraid of them, thinking the only good snake is a dead snake. Now I take a hands off attitude and am able to enjoy how beautiful they are in motion. Workers on a window replacement project alerted me to a coral snake they observed moving through the ground cover and we all took a break to watch and admire it as it slowly moved off.

At some point I'll find a happier balance. At the moment I am still bothered by the idea of taking out an entire colony.

Pam/Digging said...

Killing is never easy, and it shouldn't be. But gardens are for people too. I think you did what you had to.

TexasDeb said...

DHB/David: When The Hub got stung recently he described it as an electric shock-like feeling. The experience is quite effective as a deterrent both short and long term. I haven't been stung since I was a pre-schooler but I remember the entire incident more clearly than some of my birthdays, growing up. If we humans hadn't adapted into spray-can wielding types the wasps would stand a much higher chance of simply being left alone, and for good reason. Nobody willingly endures those stings!

TexasDeb said...

Kris: Thank you. A respectful distance - that is exactly it. At the beginning of the season I am often knocking down the beginnings of paper wasp nests built under the front porch overhang only inches away from our front door. I do the same on the back deck where we are constantly moving in and out of the house all day. I suppose some of those nests are already functioning as nurseries and there is loss there, just not on any great scale (to my human reckoning at least). I suppose I'd be much happier if those door-proximity wasp builders would keep a more respectful distance on their part, as well.

TexasDeb said...

Digging/Pam: That's it of course. Killing ought not ever be an easy thing. Your point is well taken about gardens. The area out front however, I think of more as landscape than gardens, areas that will hopefully provide an interesting and ever-changing front row seat to passersby of what native plants are getting up to at any particular time of the year. The animals, birds, insects and reptiles visiting and setting up shop out there are all part of the ongoing drama, (and now, I am, too).

I did consider the options before I chose to kill the wasps on that nest. That choice felt like the best option long term for the populations en masse we try to support. Truth be told, towards the end I experienced not only sorrow but anger towards the wasps for "making" me kill them. Nothing contradictory about that!

Debra said...

Sometimes we have to make tough choices. I am -really- glad to hear you didn't get hurt.

TexasDeb said...

Debra: Thank you. I'm still experiencing active relief. It could have easily gone a different way if I'd been working from the other side of that clump when I jiggled the "wrong" leaf. I feel two close calls in a matter of weeks is a signal to pay better attention. These areas I'm addressing have been static, relatively untouched for at least a couple of years. A lot of fascinating creatures can get set up in that time span and some of them strongly prefer not to be surprised. From now on I'm at least going to do pre-emptive jiggling and jostling before leaning way in and getting all gung ho with the pruning saw.

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

I do understand your dilemma. Sometimes we have to do things we don't like in order to make things safer for us and others. I am also glad you did not get hurt.

TexasDeb said...

Donna: What has been fascinating to me is that when I encountered a second wasp nest in the next clump of agave I was removing, I did not feel nearly so upset about the need to destroy it after having been through the wringer over the first nest I had to eliminate. I was sad for the need for it but I am discovering there are more wasps - a LOT more - than I ever guessed, living out in our spaces. My puny efforts aren't making a dent in their overall population, but my presence has proven catastrophic for a few!