One of the things that surprises city people who visit the country is how noisy the country can be at night. Having lived in both places, I can attest that sleeping through traffic noise and occasional sirens passing by is easier than sleeping through the deafening roar of night insects and tree frogs in the Ozarks. Throughout the summer months there, everybody is punchy for lack of good sleep, and never think of that as anything but normal.
When I moved to Indiana, I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet it is here. All my life I’d been sleeping next to freeways or airports where the rent was cheaper, or in the Ozarks where noise of some sort is just part of the climate. Here, it’s usually quiet at night. No cascading torrent of chirping and buzzing and trilling night insects; no tree frogs blasting out their mating calls from the windowsill; and thankfully, no whippoorwills perching in the tree outside, so close that you can hear that exceptionally irritating glottal click! that nobody ever records for movies about the South. Whip-poor-will! TOCK! Whip-poor-will! TOCK! It’ll make you crazy, and yes, there were nights when I was hanging out the window half or fully naked with a shotgun in hand and a hope I’d see something to use it on. I don’t miss that.
Several nights ago, here in Indiana, I woke up to a strange noise at about 3 a.m., a hissing and spitting fest I recognized as belonging to the raccoon language. I didn’t think much about it until a couple of days later I noticed that the coons had stopped crapping in the trail to the compost pile. One of the bravest or possibly most foolish of the local raccoons came across something interesting beside the path to the compost heap, or the garbage pile, the place where I take the stuff that will rot but does attract animals. The raccoons have not pooed in the path since then. They’d been using it frequently up until that night, possibly because the dry grass on either side of the trail tickles. No raccoon scat in the trail now, though, not since one of them opened up a yellow jacket nest in the middle of the night.
Yellow jackets are part of the landscape here and I work around them. These little black and yellow wasps build massive nests underground, similar to the nests of the paper wasps that colonize the front porch every year, but much better defended and much larger. Paper wasps, the red-bodied kind that find their way into houses in the fall, don’t cause me much problem. They seem nice, as wasps go. If one lands on me, I’ll say hello and in a moment it’ll take off again. Paper wasps get along with you all right if you don’t panic and start doing horrible things to them. When I was growing up in the Ozarks they used to infest my bedroom at the end of the hot season, coming in during the day to look for winter quarters and then finding no way out again through all that mysterious “hard air” that covered the windows. Nice bugs that they were, they wanted to crawl under the bed sheets and cuddle at night. I usually got stung about a half dozen times in the evening before we reached a truce. Hundreds in the window, maybe twenty in the bed. Funny, the things you get used to.
Yellow jackets are a whole different breed of bug, not just genetically but in personality. Lots of people talk about hornets as the worst possible wasp, but I’ve actually not had too many problems with hornets. They build their nests in high places, or deep inside thickets, and it takes quite a bit of bother to make them retaliate. As I keep saying, yellow jackets are different, smaller than either hornets or paper wasps, but deserving of a higher degree of caution and respect. I’m so glad they live outside, and don’t want to take over your house in the fall. People would have disposable houses, if they did that.
A yellow jacket nest, in theory, has no upper limit in size. These predatory wasps start out with a single queen and visions of glory, and by the end of the season probably will have built a colony of many thousands of ferocious workers armed with stingers no more painful than any other wasp, but used with much more enthusiasm. Blunder into a paper wast nest while you’re cleaning out the gutters, and you can say, Oops, excuse me! and go on with your business. Push the lawn mower over the entrance of a yellow jacket nest somewhere in the yard, and you’ll have to abandon the mower and run like hell. I’ve abandoned much larger things than mowers because of yellow jackets. Once while cutting a field with a full-sized tractor I happened to pass over the top of a good yellow jacket nest, and the residents objected to this strongly. As soon as I realized what was stinging me, I parked the tractor right where it was, debarked athletically, and took off at full speed for the house, several hundred yards away. When I burst through the entrance and slammed the screen door behind me, I heard a series of impacts, Pap! Pap! Pap! like the sound of poison darts in an Indiana Jones movie, and turned around to see a dozen yellow jackets hovering just beyond the screen and glaring at me. Yellow jackets are like that. If you encounter a few thousand of them, you should have left a long time ago.
The only thing that stops yellow jackets from taking over the world is cold weather and a lack of prey in winter. Here, they hunt small things like aphids that cluster on the willow trees in late summer. They’ll also tackle carrion, and larger pieces of meat found in garbage, and they love sweets. I made a batch of candy last year that I found my adult stomach did not tolerate as well as my stomach did when I was eight, and the garbage mound became an amazing swarm of gluttonous yellow jackets for several days. This is the kind of insect that makes you grateful for winter and that sub-zero killing weather. We need a head start on yellow jackets to get through a year, and winter gives us that.
Strangely enough, my ancestors didn’t think of yellow jackets as a problem, but as a resource. I’m always interested in good things to eat, and a few years ago I picked up a little book at Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis, one of my favorite old places, and found a very interesting recipe in it. Indian Cookin by Francis L. Whistler of the Cherokee Nation, has a lot of cooking ideas in it that most people today wouldn’t consider. For instance, a recipe for cicadas, or seventeen year locusts. People in modern America don’t usually think of insects as potential food. I’ve been through quite a few hatches of 17 year locust/cicadas — not the annual summer kind that drives you crazy with their constant buzzing drone, but the type that reaches adult stage en masse every 17 years and suddenly fills the trees and the air with raucous songs and litters the ground with exhausted sexually-depleted bodies for a period of two or three loud weeks. For many creatures, including old-style humans, that’s free food.
A couple of years ago when I was traveling through Missouri, I stopped at a highway rest stop and actually thought somebody was running a dozen or so weedeaters just over the hill. When I went to check this out, I found a grove of trees and a swarm of locusts. I read later on that an ice cream shop in Columbia had been doing a good business in locust shakes and locust sundaes until the local health department made them stop. There’s no danger in eating locusts as long as you roast them first, or pan fry them. All it takes to eat them is some courage. Francis Whistler recommends gathering them at night just after they’ve emerged from the ground and while their shells are still soft. If the shells harden, you’ll need to crack them and shell them out before cooking, something today’s locust chefs probably ignore, since they’re fairly sure nobody is really going to eat them. Cook and eat them quickly, because they won’t keep.
In Whistler’s book on Indian Cookin‘ you’ll also find a tiny bit of advice on using the many pounds of nourishment contained in a thriving yellow jacket nest. After parching the paper combs over a fire you can pick out the grubs and the pupae and make a good soup. Use the yield of the nest like any ground meat, except you don’t need to grind it. This isn’t an uncommon practice in hunting and gathering societies — comb honey with grubs and pupae included is good food in many places, yielding delicious fat and protein as well as sugar. The bugs I’ve eaten actually have tasted pretty good, but it’s still a hard line to cross and most of the time I won’t do it intentionally.
The trick with cooking yellow jackets, I assume, is living through the harvest, or at least hanging around long enough to complete the job. Whistler’s only hint about how this might be done without specially designed armored clothing is to harvest the combs early in the morning. Since the local raccoons didn’t get very far with that, I’m a little skeptical. Yellow jackets aren’t supposed to be as dangerous at night, but I think we’re still missing a key piece of the information required to produce a good yellow jacket stew.