Spheksophobia: The Fear of Wasps
Marc had a way of announcing himself whenever he arrived. Each of the three times he came to visit me for the weekend, he called from the driveway.
“I’m here,” he always said, weary from the trip.
The first time was to make sure he had the right house; after that, it was out of habit. Despite the winter weather, I greeted him on the porch, the concrete step icy beneath my bare feet. I ignored the cold because he was warm, his smile was warm, his kiss was warm, and I was drawn to that warmth.
“Well, this is a lovely home,” he said, almost surprised, as he hovered in the entry way and looked up to the high ceilings until his gaze landed on the gas fireplace against the far wall, the flames dancing behind tempered glass. The sun set early in December, and he had arrived in the dark. Inside, though, the bulbs in the chandelier and glow from purposefully placed candles filled the room with ambient light.
“You can come in,” I said. The room felt smaller with him in it, and I was eager for him to settle into the space.
I felt edgy having him there. He was the first person I’d invited into my house since I moved in just six months prior. I sought his approval and had cleaned obsessively in preparation for his arrival. It wasn’t just his visit; it was him. I knew we would make love for the first time that weekend, our bodies exposed, my heart vulnerable. I was both anxious and nervous with anticipation that the weekend would reveal the depth of our care for and commitment to each other.
Six weeks after we broke up, I agreed to meet him for dinner. I arrived at the restaurant early to have a drink at the bar. I had been there once before, months prior when I met his family for the first and only time. I was nervous on both occasions but for different reasons. The first, I wanted his family to like me. The second, I wanted him to realize he loved me or that he loved me still. I braced for the sting of disappointment.
My phone vibrated with his text message. I’m here.
Inside, I responded then turned toward the entrance to wait for the door to swing open and Marc to walk in.
The wasps were back. They flew overhead in a senseless pattern, sometimes allowing the wind to sweep them upward or cascading down to circle my head or land on a railing before taking flight once more, their long legs dangling lazily beneath them.
My shoulders lurched upward whenever a wasp got too close. I ducked my head to the side but still heard their buzzing that cast my entire body in shivers so severe, I bolted off the steps and into the grass, my hands flapping at the empty air around me. It was a counterproductive response. Spheksophobia is a catalyst for wasp attacks as the reaction is often perceived as threatening. Swatting and dodging isn’t unwarranted, though. Getting stung is a traumatic event. It isn’t until the adrenaline wears off that the pain really sets in. The skin around the sting puffs into an expanding diameter of heat and varying shades of pink and red. I had been stung once while jogging and literally ran into a wasp with my shin. Once had been enough for me.
Paper wasps build their nests out of wood fibers that they scrape from the bark of a tree or the side of a fence panel, masticate into pulp in their mouths, and weave, stack, assemble into hives that look like umbrellas with open combs on the underside. The privacy fence around my yard bore short, shallow scratches where the wasps had looted the surface for pulp. The eaves around my house, near the back door, and under the deck railing were spotty with nests ranging from just a few combs to hundreds, each the birthplace for even more wasps who would grow into workers and expand the colony.
The wasps in my yard were more than a nuisance; they were an infestation. There were so many swarming workers that my presence in the yard or seated on my deck could have alarmed even just one, yet when one attacks, they all attack.
With the number of nests and wasps to protect them, it was inevitable one would find its way into the house, sneaking in through a door held open too long. With the security of my home breached by the uninvited pest, I was the one who went into attack mode armed with a wasp killer spray can in one hand and a rolled up magazine, a shoe, or a flyswatter in the other. It was one thing for them to colonize my backyard; it was quite another for them to invade my home.
It was the first time I’d ever been alone with him, aside from casual one-on-one chit-chats in his office at the end of a long work day when I would pop in briefly to ask a question on my way out and finally leave two hours later. This was nothing like that, though. This was six years later, when he was no longer my boss and no longer married, when we no longer even lived in the same state. This was a nondescript hotel restaurant in the back of the Hampton Inn in Holland, Michigan, and we were on a date of sorts.
Up until now, our courtship had taken place over the phone, seven hours and one time zone away from each other. We were learning about one another in a different way, a romantic way, a way that made us both nervous from inexperience and anticipation.
The waitress brought him a glass of red wine and me a vodka tonic, though it didn’t have nearly enough ice, and every bartender should know that it’s ice that makes the drink. When it came time to order another round, I requested they fill the glass with ice to the brim and even add more after the drink was mixed, but instead she brought me a double in a taller glass, the ice quantity still inadequate.
I drank it anyway. I pretended not to notice him staring at me. I pretended to be casual when he reached across the table and took my hand. Instead, I was unhinged.
I was at war with the wasps. I kept foam spray next to me when I sat on the deck and doused them whenever they landed on a surface within spraying shot. They wouldn’t die, though; at least, not right away. They would twitch and wiggle, the foam holding them down. It was meant to destroy the nests, not the wasps themselves, but it incapacitated them long enough for me to stomp on their bodies, an audible crunch beneath my shoe.
The wasp’s anatomy is rather simple and similar to other insects with an exoskeleton. The head contains many eyes, antennae, and mandibles, the appendages near the jaw that enable it to grab, carry, and crush its prey. The thorax and abdomen—connected by a notably slender waist—contain the wasp’s vital organs. The aorta and nervous system reside in the thorax; the abdomen contains the heart, stomach, venom glands, and anus. The wasp’s long six legs are attached to the bottom of the thorax and the four transparent wings are attached to the top.
If the wasp is female, the stinger is visible at the end tip of the abdomen, poised to strike when necessary. Males, or drones, do not have stingers because they don’t lay eggs. They cannot protect the nest and they cannot provide food. In the social order, they are the third and lowest class of the colony beneath the queen and female workers.
Before sweeping their carcasses into the yard, I would study what was left of the wasps still dripping with lethal foam. I studied their shape and appendages, tried to distinguish the males from the females. I became a connoisseur of wasp facts, for if I knew them, I could defeat them. Know thy enemy.
The scientific name for a paper wasp is Polistes spp, from the family Vespidae and the order Hymenoptera, same as bees and ants, with which it shares many similarities. We recognize its class—Insecta—but may not know its phylum—Arthropoda. As with most living creatures on the planet, it comes from the kingdom, animalia, just like humans.
There are 20,000 species of wasps. There is only one species of man.
The first time I stayed the night with Marc, it was my turn to stand in a vestibule, careful to keep the dirty wheels of my rolling duffle bag off the white carpeting. The house was intimidating, and all I could do was remark on the sprawling size of it.
“Mine was bigger,” he whispered in my ear as he stood behind me, and I felt a compulsion to swat away the brag. At one time, yes, he had a house of his own that he shared with his ex-wife and teenage kids, but that home was sold when the marriage ended. Now he was a man in his fifties living with his mother in her home, his boxed belongings stored in her basement. He was a transient in so many ways, the direction and intentions of his life uncertain.
We spent the majority of our long-distance relationship on the phone, and I became attached to his voice so close to my ear when he told me stories of family and childhood, the way his tone changed when he spoke about us. He seemed to like me most when we were on the phone, when he could imagine a version of me that he idealized: the demure yet sexy, ever-supportive listener.
In person, he would get close to my face when he wanted to emphasize a point or make a joke, never adjusting for volume or proximity. I would cringe and slink away, my inner ear stinging from the acoustic trauma.
“I thought you liked it when I whispered in your ear,” he said when I complained and tried to follow it with a joke or a smirk. Humor, after all, is the best distraction.
“Whisper, yes,” I said. “But that wasn’t whispering.”
He would joke away the request but never expressed regret for the discomfort. Apologies from Marc were hard to come by.
By summer, a paper wasp nest can become quite large, reaching a width of 6-8 inches. In fall, freezing temperatures will kill all but the queen, who seeks shelter in leaves or brush and hibernates for the winter. The nest degrades over winter and is rarely reused the next year. For that reason, I chose to leave abandoned nests alone in hopes they would serve as a deterrent for future queens.
Some queens that are unsuccessful at establishing their own nest may submit to another queen and become a worker. The joiner wasp mated the previous year, so she is next in line to the throne if the founding queen is lost or dies. Sometimes a joiner dominates the founding queen and usurps the nest. In these cases, the founding queen is demoted to a worker, but she isn’t kicked out of the nest.
In the beginning, Marc kept me a secret; his life with me was a lie through omission. Weeks away from finalizing his divorce, he didn’t want to tell his kids he started seeing someone. It wasn’t until after he spent a weekend with me in Illinois, after his ex-wife called to tell him her email had been hacked and not to open any attachments from her, after he said he was out of town and would change his email password when he returned, after they met for dinner to discuss his daughter’s upcoming high school graduation and desire to go to college in California, that she asked what he was doing in Illinois and he told her the truth.
After that, I wasn’t a secret anymore.
That isn’t to say I was included. Marc kept his family life compartmentalized from his life with me. He spent Thanksgiving with his kids and ex-wife and part of Christmas, too. On Valentine’s Day when bouquets of flowers were delivered to various offices all over campus, I got a phone call at the end of the day from a forlorn Marc lamenting his failed marriage. “It hit me so hard today that we would never spend another Valentine’s Day together.” Apparently, the queen hadn’t left the nest after all, and it stung.
I was quiet on the phone that night. It may have seemed like I was listening intently and offering support for his broken heart, but I was instead holding back my own loss.
He ended the call the way he always did. “Well, I’m starting to fade. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” With that he hung up and likely went to sleep right away.
I took the Bob Seger record he gave me and smashed it into the trash can. Afterward, I laid awake in the dark, my heart pounding with fury and regret.
It’s easy to confuse hornets with wasps, wasps with bees, and bees with hoverflies; in fact, may people refer to them interchangeably. In my backyard, I see paper wasps the most, though the occasional fat bumblebee will show up, too busy pollinating to notice me, though it’s capable of stinging multiple times if it needs to do so. Hoverflies dart in and out looking so much like striped paper wasps that I stiffen with fear, which is exactly what their appearance is intended to do, even though they are entirely harmless. I have yet to see a hornet, gratefully, as their rare stings are toxic and can be fatal.
It’s the brown paper wasps that I see the most, who have returned for the third consecutive summer, despite my efforts to destroy last year’s nests early. There are fewer this summer. They are in greatest concentration when the weather is the hottest. As I’m averse to hot weather, I spend those warm days inside, waiting to enjoy the deck until the early evenings when the temperatures cool and the wasps go dormant for the night.
Honeybees are the most rare. They are also the most vital, so I try to draw them in by planting blooming annuals. They are the only buzzing visitors that can sting just once. They are also friendly unless provoked. Like the bumblebee, they have a job to do and don’t want to be bothered with anything else.
Wasps and honeybees have one interesting trait in common: they can both recognize faces. While honeybees can recognize human faces, wasps can recognize each other; they know who is part of their nest, their family. When their nests are threatened, wasps will turn and face the offender head-on. Others will gather and do the same. It’s their way of delivering a warning, “Back away.”
Marc broke up with me when he decided he would change jobs, move to California, and finally write his novel. The distance between us was an inconvenience and an interference, but it was also an excuse. He cowered to the directives of his ex-wife, failing to argue when she insisted I wasn’t welcome at his daughter’s high school graduation. It was the first time in our relationship that his talk turned to action, and it was at the expense of me.
A year later, he had relocated and had taken a new job, yet he only made it 300 miles to the west side of Michigan rather than 3,000 miles to the west coast of the United States. He hadn’t written a novel, either. He hadn’t written anything.
“I realized how much I wronged you.” It was a non-apology, but it was the best he could do. We were making a fleeting effort at being friends since we had been friends for so many years before we were in a relationship. He told me about all of the women he had dated after me, most of which were long-distance and none of which lasted. We spoke every few days, and before long, he was droning on again about how unhappy he was in his job, how he thought this time it would be different, even though it was in the same industry.
I knew he expected that I would listen, empathize, encourage.
I did none of those things.
I told him the truth. And it stung.
Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here: Essays and the four-time award-winning memoir, Realizing River City. Her work has appeared in Brevity, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, and many others. Her essays have been listed in the Best American Essays notables 2016, 2018, and 2019. She is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Central College. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com.