Many years before I fell in love with plants I became enchanted by arthropods in general and insects in particular. As my friends played football or started to become interested in cars I was lifting stones to search for woodlice, or wading into the bed of nettles to watch the life cycle of the cabbage white butterflies that lived there. Walking to school I lifted stopcock covers to find ants’ nests, fascinated by their networks of tiny tunnels, and the patterns in their scurrying as they removed their eggs and carried them to safety deeper inside the nest. By the time I was ten, I knew my best friend’s favorite football team was Liverpool, while my favorite order of insects was Hymenoptera, containing bees, wasps and ants. (On reflection I’m not sure what we actually talked to each other about).
There are so many things about these fascinating creatures that amazed me then as they still do now. But I think what I loved most about them was their incredible design. I collected dead ones that I found so I could spend time looking at them in detail, but live ones I found truly magical. Structurally they are the opposite of us, with their skeleton on the outside protecting soft tissues on the inside. Wearing perfectly jointed suits of armour they enthralled me as a child and my affection for them has never left me.
Pruning back a large Juniper a few weeks ago I came across a common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, still sluggish as she slowly warmed her body in the sunlight. Holding on to the juniper with her back two pairs of legs she used her front pair to delicately clean her antennae. Despite the presence of such a large and seemingly clumsy creature she did not seem inclined to move, cold blooded as they are she may have simply been too cool to fly.
We humans are a discriminating species and the wasp does not come with a glowing reputation. They sting us, invade our picnics, homes and sheds, steal honey from our bees and, drunk on fermenting fruit, make picking fallen apples in autumn a far more interesting endeavour. Yet their stings are used only in defence, and without wasps our gardens would be overwhelmed by a whole host of pests that these flying hunters spend their days diligently killing and taking back to their nests for their young. The nests themselves are marvels of paper architecture, as a young teenager with remarkably accepting parents I contacted a pest control company who kindly provided me with three (very nearly) dead wasps’ nests. Inside them the hanging tiers of cells made me think of miniature gothic cathedrals, which in use would have been full of hundreds of individuals bustling around each other in chaotic harmony.
Pruning the juniper was going to be a considerable job, taller than the vegetable cage and longer than the swimming pool it took two days in the end. But I felt that the wasp was at least as justified as me in her place in the garden and it felt wrong to disturb her, so I climbed back down away from her and started on the other side. By the time I’d worked my way back to that area the sun was high in the sky and she was gone, the garden a better place for both of our actions.