The Kentucky Apple Festival is once again upon us, and while Johnson County welcomes most visitors we must also acknowledge those we aren’t so eager to see: the white-faced hornets, or yellow jackets as they’re known locally, whose population is always at its highest this season and whose numbers at the Apple Day festivities rival those of the humans. And whenever I think of yellow jackets or any other similar stinging insects, I always recall my father with a smile. I’ve said before that Dad was one of the calmest, most sensible men I ever knew, but if there was one thing that made him react from the gut rather than his head it was a wasps’, hornets’, or yellow jackets’ nest anywhere near our place.
I’m not certain why. Dad wasn’t a beekeeper, but he liked honeybees and didn’t want them bothered. He liked bumblebees because he said they were the only insects that could pollinate red clover. He tolerated dirt daubers too, because they hardly ever sting, and I can recall him when I was young, showing me a dirt dauber dragging a katydid to its nest as food for its larvae. But as far as he was concerned it was open season on most other such pests with nests. Grandma (yep, the same Grandma who air-conditioned her front door with the Smith & Wesson) used to say that once when Dad was little, he’d put on a shirt with several “waspers” hidden inside it and he’d harbored a grudge against them and all their kind ever since. She may have been right. But I do know for sure that, while our neighbors mostly used common sense in destroying a wasps’, hornets’, or yellow jackets’ nest, waiting until dark for all the insects to return and then squirting gasoline on it or in it, invariably killing them immediately, Dad would march right out to any nest he found during the sunniest part of a hot summer day armed only with a fly swatter. He’d knock down or break open the nest depending on its location, jump back, and start swinging that fly swatter like a knight wielding a sword against a fire-breathing dragon until both he and his winged, stinged adversaries were worn tea-totally out. He never wanted me along on these pesticide missions, perhaps fearing that I was, unlike him, allergic to insect venom, but I wasn’t really all that crazy about joining in the fight anyway. Many’s the time I’ve watched him from a safe spot and when he’d finally turn back toward the house with a big grin I knew he’d scored another victory. Sweet Tater’s seen him do it too, both before and after she and I married. Mom always quarreled at Dad as she applied vinegar to his stings, wondering out loud and loudly why he always had to turn pest control into a battle royal, but he’d just smile at her as if to say: fuss to your heart’s content, darlin’, you can’t take my triumph away from me.
Though I’m no more allergic to stinging insects than Dad was,I still prefer a more subtle approach to dealing with them. I once described my favorite method to another preacher, years ago at a church association meeting. Like the Apple Festival, association time is always in late summer or early fall when the yellow jackets are busiest, and on this occasion the host congregation had set up several tents and long picnic tables outdoors for the crowd’s lunchtime accommodations. Trouble was, the yellow jackets were out in force and seeking fellowship too, and they pretty much insisted on taking communion with us that afternoon.It was no love feast, either: everybody was on guard for yellow jackets hiding in their sandwiches and floating in their pop. As I waved a couple of the buzzing pests away from my drink I observed to the brother clergyman nearest me, “You know, if the moderator of this church had thought about it two weeks ago he could have solved this problem.”
“How?” he asked, batting at several more yellow jackets hovering over his dessert.
“Why, if he’d only taken all these yellow jackets all down to the creek, baptized them, and put their names in the membership book,” I replied, “within two weeks they’d have left the church. It works for humans often enough, doesn’t it?”
My dining companion laughed. But if one’s going to risk being stung by yellow jackets or people, at least we can presume that the less painful, harmful kind will be more common this weekend. Happy Apple Days.