Caps Off to the Yellow Jackets

I clean in a swarm of yellow jackets,

sure they won’t sting me, so they don’t,

though they can’t resist the fish, the slime,

the guts that drop into the bucket, they’re mad

for meat, fresh death, they swarm around

whenever I work at this outdoor sink

with somebody’s loving catch.

~ David Young, “A Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets,” 2000

Yellow jackets are busy this time of year, bringing food back to the colony’s current queen and next year’s queen, still developing in the nest. I enjoy watching them fly back and forth like soldiers on a mission, but the nests in my pasture and next to my barn are safety hazards to my family, horses and dogs, so they will have to go.

I don’t share David Young’s conviction that they won’t sting me, especially in the fall when they are hyper-defensive about their colony and food sources are dwindling.

Young continues his poem by describing how he will get rid of the yellow jackets:

Later this summer we’ll find their nest

and burn it one night with a blowtorch

applied to the entrance, the paper hotel

glowing with fire and smoke like a lantern,

full of the death – bees, hornets, whatever they are,

that drop like little coals

and an oily smoke that rolls through the trees

into the night…

I will let winter’s cold kill off the colony naturally (save for the queen, who will find warm shelter to hibernate and will emerge next spring to begin the next generation of yellow jackets. I’m sealing the hole in case something else wants to nest in the hole). However, Young’s reflective prose poem about a summer vacation he spent in Maine in 1956 has inspired me to try out this style of poetry to describe my own experiences with yellow jackets during my first summer on our property in Bandon, Oregon.

Caps Off to the Yellow Jackets

It’s summer, 2018, just outside of Bandon,

a coastal town in southern Oregon, and I am watching

two hired men with a tractor and trailer pick up felled

alder trees in the pasture and haul them away for shavings.

The noise of their machinery drowns out the foghorn at the

Coquille River Lighthouse and the crashing surf at nearby

China Creek Beach, but I know they are there, waiting

for the busyness of today to be done.

Suddenly, the younger of the two men starts shouting

and running, waving his green Ducks cap in short, jerky movements.

“Bees!” he yells, swiping the air, “Sons of bitches got me real good!”

Four times he’s been stung on his arms and his neck, but

he doesn’t stop working, he must be used to this kind of pain.

I am not, so I walk carefully over to the nest, a hole

in the ground underneath a thick limb; not bees but yellow jackets

are flying to and fro, protecting their queen like foot soldiers.

Their home has been invaded, their queen’s rest disturbed,

and I can’t fault them for their wrath; I’d do the same if I felt

threatened and had a stinger attached to my abdomen.

This pasture has stood empty for years and the yellow jackets

have claimed it, but now I have challenged their right and I will fight

for it, too. Sometimes there’s just no use in trying

to get along.

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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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