When I was in my twenties and moving belongings to a new apartment, I stepped on a wasp and got a bad sting that slowed down my moving for the rest of the day. A bad memory, but not enough to make me terrified of bees or wasps. I still regard them as an annoyance. So this week when Jed and I were patrolling the vineyard for beetles and deer tracks I was mostly annoyed to see a bunch of wasps buzzing around one corner of the vineyard. As I got closer the wasps kept getting bigger. A lot bigger. As in two inches long big. Big enough to carry off a cicada. Which is what they do. These were ground digging wasps – also known as cicada killer wasps. They don’t show up until the cicadas do which is in the middle of the summer. They each dig a hole in the ground that they burrow into at night to sleep. But during the day they buzz around, and if you are nearby, they zoom in close to check you out. When I think back I’m sure I’ve seen them before but never paid much attention because there were only one or two. This time there are about 75.
Cicada Killer Wasp and Victim
When Jed and I mentioned that we had wasps near the ground to our fellow vineyard owner Steve Brown he said ‘”You should try to get rid of them now because when there’s fruit on the vines they’ll fly over and suck the juice out of your grapes. The next year you’ll have even more.”
Oh good. Now we have things that eat the grape roots, things that eat the grape leaves, and things that eat the grapes.
Soon I’m back home Googling for info, which is how I know they are called cicada killers. Not surprisingly most entries were accompanied by “How to get rid of….” A few followed that with “organically” or “without using commercial pesticides.” Despite the fact that our other organic efforts have failed miserably, I decided that this was an opportunity to regain a tiny bit of organic credibility.
After work the next day I went out to the vineyard with a bucket full of neon orange marker flags; we had used them before in conjunction with laying out the vineyard rows. One of the online “experts’ had recommended marking all the holes during the daylight because you have to wait until dark when the wasps are in their burrows to kill them. I gingerly stuck a flag down a hole and stepped away in case a wasp was in there. Nothing happened, so I poked a flag into the next one carefully avoiding the wasps that were flying around my legs. Soon I had pockets of neon spread out over 800 square feet. But I had run out of flags before I ran out of holes. So I moved a few flags hoping that some of the bigger ones would still be visible at night if another flag was sorta close by. Then I went back inside to make dinner and………Wait Until Dark.
Flags marking wasp burrows
Over dinner Jed and I talked about what to pour down each hole. Besides commercial pesticides like Sevin there were articles online recommending ammonia, gasoline, vinegar, or WD-40. One person suggested lighting the gasoline on fire and another one suggested putting firecrackers down each hole. “Then run like hell’ was the sage advice. The ‘mothers’ online could not resist scolding about the dangers of flammables and flames being put together. Somehow I got the feeling that for some bug vigilantes killing the wasps was beside the point. Wasp decimation was just an excuse to make something go boom in the night. And if not wasps, then anything will do.
Round One. We already had a spray can of wasp and bee killer on hand, so I had to admit that using that made the most sense. At around 10:00pm we figured it was dark enough and got ready for our next bug battle. Unlike our beetle wars, these guys can fight back. So, taking no chances on stings we both put on long shirts, boots, and hats. Jed rigged up the spray can with a long straw taped onto the nozzle so that the spray would go down into the holes. Armed with flashlights and the can of wasp killer we headed toward the vineyard. It had been nearly 100 degrees that day so we were both drenched in sweat by the time we reached the corner with the flags. We decided to start at the nearest end just in case they came swarming out when we sprayed in the chemical death. Well, ok in case one came out. But still. Jed picked a flag and shined the flashlight down the hole. We couldn’t see anything in there. I shook the can of spray, pointed at the hole, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. Shake again. Point again. Press again. Nothing.
“Maybe the straw thingie needs to come off,” I whispered. I yank the straw off.
“Be careful or you’ll pull the nozzle off too!”
“I was careful! And whisper or you’ll wake them up!”
“They’re just wasps, and they’re sleeping. Relax!”
“I can’t relax. I got stung once.”
“Geez. Lemme try.” So I took the flashlight and Jed tried spraying. Nothing came out.
“I think this can is meant to be sprayed at wasps flying around, not wasps sleeping in the ground.”
“Yeah. Won’t work I guess.”
Back to the house we trudge while the cicada killers slept on.
Round Two We had a gallon of plain white vinegar in the utility closet, so that was our next weapon of choice. I had used up the last of some insecticide on Japanese beetles earlier in the day, and it came in a container with a spray nozzle on a long wand that you could dial down to a thin stream. That was perfect for this next act of bug destruction, so Jed poured the entire gallon of vinegar into the beetle juice container. The experts said you could dilute it, but we were feeling profligate, so live high on the hog, right? Actually we were feeling nervous and wanted to be very sure they all died.
Back we trekked out to the vineyard. I manned the flashlight and picked which flag to tackle first. Jed aimed the nozzle and filled the first hole with vinegar. Then another. Light….point….shoot. Light….point….shoot. After about 20 minutes of quiet bending and squinting we turned around to survey our work. Well, actually we couldn’t really see anything except that we had worked our way to the other end of the field of flags.
“Do you see any wasps coming out?”
“Do you think we got them all?”
“No, but I think we got all the ones marked by flags.”
We headed to bed hoping the vinegar would do the trick.
The next morning as we left for the office we drove slowly past the field of flags looking for wasps. DAMN! Lots of them buzzing around very fast and looking pretty ticked off. Forget vinegar, even straight. That lady singing the praises of vinegar for these wasps is a liar. We stayed up late and sweated for nothing. Boo to the wasp killer spray too.
That night, as we returned home, prepared to try something else, we didn’t see a single wasp.
“Maybe it just took a while to work.”
“Yeah. Online vinegar lady I forgive you.”
Sigh….. this morning they were all there again. I guess they had just had an early night, perhaps as tired of the heat as we were.
Powder Boy and the Killer Wasps
Round Three The next morning the wasps are again buzzing around as we leave for work. This time Jed is in favor of trying WD-40, which I did not see suggested anywhere. I am in favor of trying ammonia. We don’t have enough of either to kill 75 giant wasps. So we stop at a nearby Lowes on the way home from work to see if they have anything specifically for cicada killer wasps. They don’t, but the guy in the garden store says that the professionals use either Sevin or powdered lime. We buy both. Does this make our next wasp battle semi-organic? I’ve given up caring. I just want them gone. They are big, and ugly, and scary. I don’t care that only the females are supposed to sting. Who can tell a male from a female? Especially when you’re dancing away from one as fast as you can move.
We pull into the driveway in that afternoon and scan across the sea of flags. We are armed with the real deal. But we don’t see any wasps. They must be in their holes. Where else can they be? We’ve hardly heard any cicadas all summer. Maybe they’re starving to death and we just need to be patient. No! We have our weapons and we will use them. Jed heads off to replace the blades on the riding mower. I head into the house to make dinner and Wait Until Dark.
The next thing I know I’m looking out the window and see Jed and the ground by the flags covered in white powder. Jed has decided that since there were no wasps around there was no need to wait until dark. He assures me that it’s just lime on his shirt, and that he was careful handling the Sevin. Now, lime is also used to adjust the PH in the soil, and we have already limed our soil for this year according to very precise instructions which accompanied our last soil test results. Will this mess up our previous liming and hurt the grapes? I am torn between my need to compulsively follow directions, and my need to see dead wasp bodies all over the ground. I retire to the house without comment to Jed. It’s too late now anyway. Powder Boy has already done his thing.
Yet another morning. Jed is still in bed after an all nighter checking for deer who are less and less averse to the smells on our deer tape. So I am on my way to work alone. I slow down for the ritual wasp check. I realize I am holding my breath. I don’t see any. I stop the car and look more closely. Nothing. I inch slowly forward down the drive peering past the grow tubes and into the field of flags. Not a single blur of black and yellow. I let out my breath.
Gee, do you suppose choosing Sevin like the professionals do might have actually worked? Another bug battle won. Another organic opportunity lost.
So dear friends, if you’re choosing between ammonia, gasoline, garden lime, vinegar, and WD-40 to kill cicada killer wasps in your yard……go with Sevin. Then light some firecrackers in celebration. We are.