An Exercise in Befriending (Tuscan) Yellow Jackets

Even as an avowed nature lover, the city gal in me is often unduly squeamish when coming face-to-face with fauna. Case in point, on a (very) recent trip to Italy with my sister Caroline and boyfriend Ryan, I was startled by the unexpected visitation of several yellow jackets at an otherwise perfect dinner at Salvadonica Vineyard, which was walking distance from our airbnb.

The perfect setting for a perfect meal (and the yellow jackets concur).

The perfect setting for a perfect meal, with or without yellow jackets.

The waitress assured me that they were “not aggressive,” and yet I attracted curious stares from our fellow diners as I yelped and fled the table where three of the yellow, stinger-donning insects had suddenly descended. Ryan likewise advised that I remain calm, and that my flailing gestures would only serve to enrage them, but I had a hard time letting go the visceral assumption that I would get stung, so long as they were around. Certainly they would, like dogs, smell my fear and go in for the attack.

Giorgio the cat.

Giorgio the cat.

I wanted to go inside, but Caroline and Ryan were reasonably unwilling to sacrifice the gorgeous views and caressing warmth of the outdoors, so I consigned myself to the situation. With a little wine and a little time, I started to realize that the yellow jackets really were not interested in me. Similar to Giorgio the cat, who planted himself at my feet to successfully beg for cheese rinds, they were allured by the food. They were persistent, yes, but could be shooed away and were certainly not intent on waging war.

Once I’d had my fill of cheese, I sat back to see what the yellow jackets would do without interference. I had really started to grow fond of them, in a way. Predictably, they went straight for the honey, two or three at a time.IMG_8524 Ryan had the brilliant idea of trapping them with a wine glass, to keep them out of our way. When they had had enough and were trying to get out, he moved the wine glass and they zoomed away, perhaps traumatized by having been trapped. At one point, a yellow jacket that got too greedy fell into the honey, unable to drag itself out. I took pity on it and fished it out with a knife, then laid it on the grass where it could clean off its wings.

They yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

The yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

Over the course of an evening—and a bottle of excellent wine—I evolved from an attitude of frantic fear to one of benevolent affection. I guess I can say that those laid-back, handsome little bugs taught me a lesson or two: try to understand, rather than fear, the “Other”; drink when uneasy, etc. But mostly I just feel grateful for the untamed essence of nature, which contains the ability to challenge us, teach us, and invite us into the web so eloquently described by Chief Seattle:

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

Aside from conferring life lessons, yellow jackets are a helpful presence in the garden, where they eat pests (although too large a colony near the home can be dangerous as they will aggressively defend their nests). Other fear-triggering insects, such as bees, are crucial pollinators. By engaging with nature and its creatures, rather than fearing and distancing ourselves from it, we stand to improve our collective lot!

In that spirit, here are some resources for encouraging pollinators:

Info on native pollinators

Attracting Native Pollinators (I have this book, it’s great!)

Project Native’s Seed Catalog