Halfway up the back stairs on a ledge is the body of a wasp so big it’s either a queen or some kind of hornet. I’ve left it there as a warning to other wasps and also because I enjoy the weird effect it has on me. Even though obviously I know it’s there, every time I pass it its shape triggers in me an involuntary shudder: the sinister curve of its abdomen, articulated like plate armour; the warning yellow and black; the horrible sharp black stinger which you can just imagine jabbing into your skin. God I hate wasps!
Some people say that if you just leave them alone they won’t harm you. But I’m not taking any chances. When the wasps start appearing at the al fresco luncheon, drinking the beer and attacking the prosciutto, I’m the pillock you see leaping up from the table and dancing in panic round the garden to escape my pursuer while everyone else looks faintly embarrassed. Then later, I’ll get my revenge by trapping one of the little sods in a glass and drowning it.
When it’s completely inert I then bury it in salt and watch it resurrect. First the mound of salt begins to stir, then out pops the head, mandibles working, wiping off the salt from its face with its front legs in a way that’s oddly endearing. I never kill it at this point. Like a gladiator that has entertained well in the arena, you have to reward it with freedom.
But I don’t think one should get too sentimental about wasps. They’re evil bastards and can do you real damage, as I was reminded just now when a wasps’ nest appeared in my lawn and I rang my brother Dick for some advice. I knew he’d know the answer because only a couple of days before he’d posted a picture of himself on social media, fully covered in leathers and full-face motorcycle helmet, a can of wasp spray clasped in his gauntlet. At the time, I’d scoffed to myself at his pathetic girlyness and overkill. But now I had a wasps’ nest of my own to deal with I wondered whether he might have a point.
Wasps’ nests are fascinating, mesmerising things to observe, like watching a Nuremberg rally: evil but impressive. The one we’ve got is just a hole in the lawn, which you’d hardly notice except for the debris round the lip, and the wasps flying purposefully in and out, roughly one every second. I think they even have guard wasps on duty. Thank God someone noticed before I accidentally mowed over it.
Before ringing Dick, I’d searched to no avail online for some useful advice. But the sites I found were either over-elaborate — one advised starting with a test to see whether you’re allergic to wasp stings, then concluded by advising you to call in a professional pest controller — or way too eco. Every other site was eager to explain how to dispose of wasps without using poison or, indeed, without killing them at all. None was capable of giving a straight, succinct answer on how to get rid of the buggers sharpish.
But Dick knew. He began by telling me the story of a friend who had tackled three wasps’ nests in his time. The first, he’d dealt with in the dead of night in a borrowed beekeeper’s outfit: no problem. The second he’d done without the beekeeper’s kit, though still heavily protected, in the very late evening: fine. The third he’d done in shorts, slightly too early in the day: disaster. He’d been chased round the garden, inside the house, everywhere. ‘Relentless. They never, never stop. He was stung seven times,’ said Dick.
The moral, Dick explained, is that where wasps are concerned you must never be cavalier. ‘You’ll be saying to yourself: “Oh come on. It must be late enough now. I want to get on, have a beer, watch TV”,’ Dick warned. How well he knew me! These were exactly the thoughts that had been going through my head before I rang him. ‘But it’s not about when you feel ready. The only thing that matters is when the wasps are ready. They have to be all tucked up in bed or you’ll regret it.’
By this stage in the conversation, Dick had made me so anxious that I seriously thought about leaving it to a pest controller. After all, what’s £40 or so if it stops you getting mass-attacked and having to spend the rest of your life carrying an EpiPen?
Then I thought: ‘You disgusting snivelling coward. You’re always telling yourself how brave you would have been in a war and how heroic you were in the hunting field. Yet here you are with a mere wasps’ nest and you’ve completely lost your bottle.’
So in I went later that night, with a head torch, a scuba diving mask, an anorak, boots, and a tea towel covering my mouth. It was hard to see the hole with no activity round it. But I found it in the end and squirted it good and proper with some deadly white foam. It was so anticlimactic that I almost wished I’d gone in earlier, for a bit of sport.
The next day, I inspected the hole and it wasn’t like watching a Nuremberg rally any more. It was more like Dad’s Army, with far fewer wasps edging awkwardly out of the hole in a hovery, sideways manner bespeaking sickness. I was reminded of a book I’d read on the Burma campaign — possibly one of John Masters’ books — about encountering emaciated starving Japanese in the weeks after Kohima and Imphal. No matter how much you’d loathed and feared them before, it didn’t stop you feeling sorry and slightly guilty now.