I Fell in Love With a Dead Wasp


A dead wasp sits by my keyboard.


It looks quite, quite deceased — a cracked red-brown body, shattered wings, and a dull weight that does not respond to pencil pokes, tiny gusts of exhaled breath, or my cat’s mews. This is a paper wasp, named so for the nests it builds and lives in. I found it lying on a Royal Poinciana branch just outside my window. I knew it lived with its friends down the street, bothering children and cyclists, but I had never touched a real wasp before. I picked it up between my finger and thumb and placed it on the nearest available surface, my desk. Up close and dead, the wasp is enchanting, a tableaux vivant of the great and terrible beauty of nature. As I observe the tiny beast, I recall from a sixth-grade biology lesson on ants that insects have a head (yes, the wasp has a fearsome head), a thorax (a hunched wasp back equipped with long, translucent oars), and an abdomen (I look for a stinger but it is either too small or I have no idea what I’m doing). Only a few years ago, I knew less about a wasp than anyone; in my ignorance, I feared and loathed this crispy insect most of my life.


Upasana celebrating her fourth birthday with her parents. (Courtesy of Upasana Sarraju)

Perhaps my parents are to blame for teaching me to avoid wasps for my own safety. My early years were spent part of a fearsome gang of children that tormented the neighborhood insects without mercy or cowardice. “If you see something that looks like a bee, don’t bother it, it will hurt you and you will cry”, my father chided me before the start of every summer break from school. I rarely followed my father’s rules on Being A Sensible Person. But I felt it best to listen this one time and avoid flying things that could stab me. This was mostly because of cartoons whose graphic, brutal bee sting depictions were filigreed into my brain. My gang’s religion thus became bullying ants. Our rituals were experimentation with ant bites. Results of these solemn activities informed our sacred doctrines on which color and size of ants to avoid, which type can be coaxed into climbing your finger, and which chappal produces the most satisfying crunch. When new children showed up in the neighborhood, the warning to avoid wasps was passed on over a shared meal of live black ants.


But I felt it best to listen this one time and avoid flying things that could stab me. This was mostly because of cartoons whose graphic, brutal bee sting depictions were filigreed into my brain. My gang’s religion thus became bullying ants.

We chased moths, hunted cockroaches, dared each other to squish larvae between our fingertips, caught frogs during the summer monsoons, released caught frogs into random homes, and hopped like frogs among parked cars on dull afternoons. We played cricket during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup season, which sometimes coincided with wasp season. But we were armed with child-size cricket bats that bore fake autographs of real cricketers and batted the wasps away about 15 times a match.


In Visakhapatnam, the coastal gem in south India where I grew up, wasps were common but not associated with an amicable warmth, unlike butterflies, honeybees, ladybirds, and grasshoppers. In this city of loud beach waves, black sand, lush greenery, and dense pockets of residential buildings, wasps were the embodiment of the word “bug”: a small, inscrutable freak with ghoulish limbs and a potent agenda involving physical harm somehow befalling you. There was just no place for wasps, like color television (“It’ll only ruin your eyes!”) and a newer car (“What’s wrong with autorickshaws!”).


 

The Asian weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina), found in Upasana's home of Visakhapatnam, builds nests using leaves weaved together from silk produced by larvae. (Courtesy of Dr. Thresiamma Varghese)

I outgrew my insecticidal tendencies in my teenage years when I turned vegetarian and discovered a love for wildlife documentaries. I didn’t actively seek ants to step on anymore, but I avoided wasps with the same overcaution as before. When the time for a career came around, I wanted to be an ecologist. I was sure that I would save all the animals, all by myself.


At the research institute that hired me as a trainee ecologist, I hid my revulsion for wasps lest I be judged. Nearly everyone around me lived only to study living things, great or small. They devoted themselves to all manner of things: dung beetles, deer, wild dogs, gaur, soil microorganisms, fish, lizards, turtles, snakes, dolphins, birds, bats. And an entire laboratory of people studied wasps.


I made no effort to befriend the wasp-lovers because how could someone who studied something so vile be pleasant themselves? About two weeks into the new job, however, I ran into one of the wasp girls in the elevator at work. She held the elevator door open for me because my hands were full of boxes of elephant dung. I smiled and thanked her, she smiled back. I smiled wider. She stopped smiling. The elevator ride was awkward. Desperate for something to say, I asked her where she found wasps to observe. “Oh, we have a vespiary for research. We have all our hives and nests there.” I did not ask her what on earth a vespiary was and if it had anything to do with dairy farms.


About two weeks into the new job, however, I ran into one of the wasp girls in the elevator at work. She held the elevator door open for me because my hands were full of boxes of elephant dung. I smiled and thanked her, she smiled back. I smiled wider. She stopped smiling. The elevator ride was awkward.

A few months later, I found myself abandoned by friends, bored and looking for something to do. There was a free seminar underway in the conference room, an annual opportunity for any ecology team to share their findings with everyone else. I snuck into the seminar, my entrance given away by a door that groaned in free jazz at every use. Luckily, no heads turned to scorn me because the person at the podium orating with charm and skill was Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar. The leader of the wasp-lovers, an eminently respected scholar and world-renowned wasp expert. I caught the last 25 minutes of his lecture. With each passing minute and PowerPoint slide, I was falling in love. With Prof. Gadagkar’s wasp research, that is.


Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar. (Courtesy of Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar)

Apparently, I had been impossibly narrow-minded. His lecture was followed by his student’s report on what happens if a queen wasp is removed from her nest. Apparently, a new queen would emerge from the nest but no human could have identified her prior to her ascent to the throne. I stayed in my seat as his presentation concluded. Three more wasp talks followed that opened my mind to possibilities I had never thought possible. I learned that a tireless humming, easily confused for chaos, sustains these creatures. That some wasp species are solitary, but those being studied on my floor, the paper wasps, were not. Then, a coffee break. Fifteen minutes later, four more presentations, including one from the girl in the elevator. I learned that entomologists have unearthed the secrets of a nest’s interior. That the society of wasps, once thought chaotic and menial, is admired for its sophistication, and this is why wasps are called “eusocial.” That wasp communication is no less dignified, with pheromones used to instruct and guide, protect and react, nurture and love in the nest. That to an insect-lover, there is a dark, enchanting beauty in how perfectly this mini-world functions (socialism comes to mind).


Here, survival depends on individual intelligence fomenting altruistic decision-making. Beneath the intelligence, however, is an ancient instinct. This is a thrum, a call to preserve the self at all costs. Hence, the stinger.

That within the papery artisanal bulb, a structure of hexagonal cells wraps around itself; herein, each wasp finds not only favorite nooks but also its life’s calling. That the reflexive geometry is an homage to the strict rules of the nest.


That at its center sits the queen mother, ruling with grace and wisdom, and when necessary, corrective wrath. She watches over her brood with a benevolent compound eye. As she ages, she loses her reproductive ability and makes way for a new, younger queen. The worker wasps in turn sustain the queen, nurture her offspring, and police the nest. As in every society, the workers are the lifeblood, the essence, the soul. Here, survival depends on individual intelligence fomenting altruistic decision-making. Beneath the intelligence, however, is an ancient instinct. This is a thrum, a call to preserve the self at all costs. Hence, the stinger.


 

A Ropalidia marginata individual resting on a glass window. (Courtesy of Dr. Sandeep Pulla)

Now, I rest my chin on my desk and take in the body of the dead wasp that lies less than an inch from my nose. Its stillness is seductive. This is not just a dead wasp. It is a Ropalidia marginata, a South Indian paper wasp that has allowed us to discern the evolution of social behavior. In the nest of this species, where conflict and unrest are offensive pursuits, collectivism reigns. Its complex life has opened the window to understanding how communities and societies function, why some leaders are more aggressive than others, and how altruism is sustainable in a community.


In the nest of this species, where conflict and unrest are offensive pursuits, collectivism reigns. Its complex life has opened the window to understanding how communities and societies function, why some leaders are more aggressive than others, and how altruism is sustainable in a community.

A venerable insect is still an insect, I argue.


But to the wasp, the wasp itself is a sensible, purposeful creature. Once its duties are done and people have long since scattered away from truncated picnics and sports matches, the wasp will return to a rich life, a fulfilling career, and a sprawling family. An entomologist, ostensibly human, would agree with the wasp. The scientist would even know how to properly approach a nest with confidence and calm and observe the creatures from the outside without disturbing them, because wasps don’t raid and plunder, they only defend and sting.


Maybe someday, I can walk up to the grey nest that hangs from a tree down my street and watch the day’s activities. Maybe someday, I can truly coexist with it and share the air that belongs to us all.


 

A colony of Ropalidia marginata swarming around its nest. (Courtesy of Dr. Thresiamma Varghese)

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Upasana Sarraju

From Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, Upasana is a molecular-biologist-turned-science-writer with a background in Biotechnology. She is now a Senior Content Associate at Garden Up, an Indian-based home gardening site with over one million subscribers, and a Master's student at the Johns Hopkins Science Writing Program. Upasana can poorly mimic the squeak of a squirrel, the bark of a seal, the coo of a pigeon, and the squawk of a macaw. For reasons unrelated, she has also visited her local police station a few too many times.