About a month ago, I taught a writing class at a conference for farmers called the Small Farm Workshop. This event gathered tenacious folks who coax food for you and me out of the soil and from their animals, large ones like cows, and small ones like bees. I was happily surrounded by men and women clad in Carharts, practical shoes, sun hats, and stunning intellects.
On this hot, sunny day, lunch was served outside. As I stood in line under a tarp shading local, organic food (plus compostable plate ware and utensils), I noticed the plate of sandwich meat vibrating.
I’d been looking past it to the fat wedges of bell peppers and the cauldron-sized bowl of hummus, but when the roast beef started to move, the meat plate gained my full attention.
Yellow jackets swarmed the dark brown and pink slices of beef. They landed on it, grasped it in their mandibles and pulled with all of their insect might. Add to this the drag of their beating wings, and they managed to rip away pebble-sized hunks of flesh.
These wasps, as much as any ravenous wolf, are true carnivores (at least their hungry young are). They’re also organized hunters and fighters, and should a freckled arm get in the way of their lunch, I don’t think they’d hesitate much in the use of their fierce stinger.
Do you know anyone who has been stung by a wasp? It’s never one sting, but always a full-on attack cascading from shoulder to wrist, or in one awful incident, from neck to stomach. It’s not unwise to be moderately fearful of these well-armored creatures.
But here’s what amazed me most about the incident. I must have been within ear-shot of 100 people — 100 farmers or people working with farmers. What did not happen is what amazed me.
In my experience, during ill-timed late-summer potlucks outside, the aunties and grannies bring their plates of meat, and out come the yellow jackets. Someone squeals, someone else squeals and runs twenty feet away, someone else won’t even come near. The few braver people swat at the yellow jackets, curse “These darned bees!” and grab paper plates to make a bigger swat. Eventually everyone moves away from the table of food and agitated wasps, ultimately abandoning their plates completely, covering the meat, and calling it quits.
The 100 or so farm folks I stood in line with?
Well, those who wanted roast beef picked up the tongs, snagged an edge of beef, firmly shook the slice of meat over the tray to scatter the yellow jackets, then plopped the meat on top of their mustarded bread, and moved on to the veggies. Everyone else worked around the yellow jackets for the sliced turkey or ham and calmly moved on.
I heard only one comment. A man explained to a woman two lines away from me, “If you swat at them, it makes it worse.” She said something I couldn’t hear, and he replied, “They’re not bees.”
I thought to myself, “These are my people!” Which is funny because had anyone started swatting or squealing, I would have hustled far away. And wasps DO scare me, which I think is perfectly logical. It’s just that everyone was so practical about it, accepted the carnivorous phase of the yellow jackets, didn’t mind sharing the meat, didn’t mind a little mandible slobber on their sandwich.
Salt of the earth I tell you. A cool bunch of folks.