Sphecius Speciosus

Sphecius Speciosus

Sphecius Speciosus 1620 1080 Robbie Maakestad

The infestation originated in my friend Peter’s front yard the summer before I entered fourth grade. Peter was two and a half years younger than me—exactly between me and my brother, Will, who was five years my junior. In actuality, Peter was only two years old because he’d been born on Leap Day, but that’s aside from the point.

Peter lived three houses behind us in a sprawling, suburban Indianapolis neighborhood that pressed up against our own. Each summer, Will and I spent nearly all our free-time with Peter, either at his place or ours, building Lego space bases, battling at Mario Kart 64, and inventing games outdoors—a yearly rhythm initiated by the first firefly of late May and the final cicada call of early September. Our favorite invented game was Balltag—aptly-named because whoever was “it” threw a ball to make a tag. We’d chase each other for hours in the woods behind Peter’s house, darting between saplings, scaling the steep creek bed, ducking behind the decomposing pine log, cutting across the neighbor’s grass back to Peter’s front yard.

During one such game of Balltag we encountered “insect zero.” Will and I jumped the creek, burst from the woods, and cut around the side of the house with Peter close behind. He whipped a throw as he rounded the corner and missed, the ball landing in one of the flowering shrubs his mother was so particular about us not crushing. Exhausted from an afternoon of running, I called timeout for a water break.

While hydrating ourselves on the front step, the largest wasp I’d ever seen buzzed into my face, sending me to my feet and down the sidewalk. Apparently, when I ran, the wasp followed for a few feet, but then turned on Peter and Will, who also abandoned their water and met me on the driveway.

“What was that?” I asked, never having seen anything that looked nearly so wicked.

The wasp was the length of a grown man’s thumb with a two inch, orange-red wingspan. Its body appeared like that of a massive yellow jacket, but with a glossy curved black abdomen bearing rust-yellow stripes. About two thirds of an inch long, a stinger curled like a sickle beneath the wasp’s body. Absolutely hellish.

We crept to the corner of the house and eyed the front yard. Nothing in sight. While Peter and Will rescued the water glasses, I tip-toed to the shrub to snatch the ball so we could take our game back to the woods. Just as I parted the bush fronds, the wasp swooped down from the Chinese Willow near my shoulder and bee lined across the yard toward Will and Peter, who fled once more. I crouched, watching as the demon returned from its pursuit, darting this way and that around the yard, pausing for a few seconds here, a few seconds there; then, it swooped to the ground and disappeared into the freshly mown grass.

The wasp was just as big as I’d thought after my initial encounter. Snaking my hand into the foliage, I freed the ball and sprinted around the house without looking back.

****

In the coming days, that first wasp was joined by another and another. After several weeks, there were what seemed like twenty to thirty hovering about Peter’s front yard, now speckled by small mounds of dirt piled around index-finger-diameter holes—an insect equivalent to a crawdad burrow. We hung out at my house, avoiding Peter’s yard as best we could. That all changed, however, when Peter called and told us to come over ASAP.

“It’s important,” he said. “Meet me in the backyard.” We found Peter on his screened-in porch. “My dad looked them up,” he said. “They’re cicada killers. And the best part is… they don’t sting humans.”

“Then what’s the stinger for?” I asked.

“Only females have stingers, but they’re just to inject poison into cicadas.” He informed us that the monsters burrow ten to twenty inches underground, moving hundreds of times their body weight in soil with their jaws and legs. Off these main tunnels, gravid females dig small nests and lay one egg per chamber. Before doing so, however, they hunt down a cicada and inject paralytic poison with a single sting beneath the abdomen. Because the cicada is often three times the wasp’s weight, the cicada killer lugs the bug back to the nest over a period of hours; one egg is laid on each cicada beneath the leg joint, near the stinger’s puncture wound; then the mother closes the chamber with dirt, entombing the live cicada. The cicada killer larva emerges from the egg a day or so later and crawls through the sting-wound to eat the paralyzed cicada from within. Once the cicada has been desiccated, larvae spin a cocoon, in which they slowly develop into a mature wasp.

According to Peter’s research, the aggressive behavior that we’d experienced stems from the male wasp’s territorial nature. Each male guards an area that’s approximately a yard square, resulting in territorial spats between cicada killers—hence the brusque flitting about. Since males guard the nest from predatory insects that feed on cicada killer larva, they remain exposed to the baking summer heat, so periodically throughout the day, males vomit on their own heads to stay cool. To add to this indignity, male cicada killers don’t even have a stinger, which only confirmed their harmlessness for Peter.

“You know what this means, right?” Peter said. “They stole our yard, so this is war.”

****

Minutes later, we were down in Peter’s creek, each of us cutting a long, lithe shrub branch with a pair of his mom’s garden clippers. After stripping the leaves and twigs from our sticks, we gathered at the side of the house.

“And you’re sure they don’t sting humans?” I asked, gazing out at the sailing horde.

“Well, the females can,” Peter said. “But only rarely, like if you step on one barefoot. You guys ready?”

Despite this bit of information, I nodded, and followed Peter into the yard, holding my stick aloft with two hands like a lightsaber, ready to take back what was ours. We advanced into the midst of the swarm and swung our sticks like crazed men chopping over and over through the air. Smacking a speedy insect with a thin stick is harder than you’d imagine. After thirty minutes or so of ineffectual efforts, one of Will’s swings connected, smacking a wasp to the ground. Circling close, we leaned in: the wasp’s stinger looked like a miniature syringe, curving sinisterly from the end of the sleek abdomen. Laying still, the creature appeared a frozen, nightmarish alien—something discovered inside a mad scientist’s cold locker in a B movie horror flick. Then, it twitched, clawing at the air and writhing among blades of grass. We looked on, horrified, until it righted itself, wings twitching like it might fly. I aligned the hilt of my fresh-hewn sword, and pressed down until I’d ended the wasp with the satisfying “crunch” of crushing an empty eggshell.

“One,” I said, looking to Peter and Will.

Thus began a new game even better than Balltag. It was us versus nature, with only the off chance of being stung.

****

For the rest of that summer, we mustered at Peter’s house around eleven or twelve AM, when the cicada killers emerged from the ground as the sun neared its zenith. Since our neighborhood was an older subdivision, the houses were surrounded by tall, mature trees—oaks, pines, maples—perfect for cicada hatchlings to climb, their haunting call becoming a choir by mid-afternoon: a sound that even today makes me nostalgic for lazy Indiana summers, the heat beating down as we killed time.

The three of us would stalk out into the yard, swords in hand, where we’d inevitably be buzzed by the wasps. After multiple errant stick swipes, the cicada killers would disappear into a tree, or retreat up and over Peter’s house. Five minutes later, they’d return, again swooping us when they saw that intruders were still on their turf. This parry and retreat continued for hours, the wasps taking casualties every so often, but never stinging us.

Our reflexes honed and it truly did become a war—us swatting cicada killers from the sky, and them, reproducing as rapidly as possible. Once, we even killed a female hefting a paralyzed cicada through the air—the girth of the cicada’s stunned body providing a broader target for our sticks. By the end of summer, we’d killed nearly forty wasps apiece.

While the game offered untold hours of entertainment, it also served a dual purpose of reclaiming Peter’s yard from the invasive throng. One afternoon, Peter’s dad even thanked me for killing them so he didn’t have to pay for an exterminator.

Beyond rebutting the invasion of Peter’s yard, I justified my kills as a defense of cicadas—the oversized, bulbous-eyed creatures who shed their exoskeletons up and down the tree trunks in our yard. Cicadas seemed innocent bumblers compared to the wasps’ wicked, fighter-jet aerodynamism; yet cicadas too looked otherworldly, albeit in a guiltless, prehistoric sort of way. Cicadas aren’t predatory; their larvae suckle upon the roots of trees, which hardly compares to the slurping from within of another living creature. Rather than aggressively swooping at humans, cicadas perch high in trees where they coordinate their chirps into a reedy chorus that dominates the Midwestern soundscape—a noise I associated even then with lying under a sheet on hot summer nights, our windows open to let the breeze blow through, staring out my bedroom window at the maple tree’s swaying branches, lightly illuminated by the neighbor’s flood light—a noise that characterized my childhood summers. Perhaps then our war wasn’t so much against cicada killers, but a fight for cicadas, for their cacophonic prattle that I’d known every summer since birth—a battle against time, against growing up, for things to stay the same, for ceaseless summer.

****

With the cooling temperatures of September, the cicada killer population in Peter’s yard dwindled, either from our efforts or from the frost. We continued fighting the stragglers through the start of school, and into October, when we killed the final wasp late one afternoon. At long last, we were victorious and we’d expunged Sphecius Speciosus from our playground. The war was over, as well as our game.

…That is, until the next summer when we realized that we’d overlooked the gestational period of cicada killer eggs. When mid-June rolled around again, they were back and just as populous as before. We resumed our struggle, and again October brought a reprieve. For the next several years, we anticipated the return of the wasps, when once again we’d spend afternoons swatting the terror-inducing monstrosities. Eventually though, we grew too old for swinging sticks at insect infestations and moved on, though I still remember seeing the wasps flitting about Peter’s yard when occasionally I’d ride past on my bike.

Together we killed hundreds of wasps over the course of those summers, but even our best efforts did nothing to eradicate that wasp kingdom. No matter how many we knocked from the air, replacements crawled from the crust of the earth to take their place. Who were we to think that we could beat out a species determined to hang on to a grassy corner of the earth? To eradicate a species bent on silencing the cicadaen symphonies of our childhood? To stop time from advancing, the season from changing—to avoid growing up? Every summer, nature proved victorious, and time rolled on. Even today now that we three are grown and each live in different states, I imagine that, every June, the resilient descendants of descendants of descendants of that original wasp burrow out of their wintering chambers and haunt the yard of Peter’s parents—evidence that the war rages on, and that even still, we’re losing.

 

 

A reading of this story aired on Bestiary, The podcast about humans & other animals.

Header photograph © Melody Couch.

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