At the beginning of summer, my wife opened up our outdoor grill, only to find that paper wasps (Polistes arizonensis) had built a nest hanging from the upper grill shelf. The nest formed a disk that was about 5 cm (about 2 inches) in diameter. She quickly closed the grill cover and came to ask me to do something about the wasps.
We did not want to kill them, so I thought that if I left the grill cover open, the heat of our summer days would drive the wasps to abandon the nest. I opened the grill cover in the early morning, when the temperature was still cool and the wasps were not active. Since the temperature really soars during the heat of the day, I thought it would take the wasps only a few days to leave their nest.
Every day I watched them through our kitchen window to see what they would do. Rather than abandoning the nest, the wasps took their exposure to the sun in stride. During the heat of the day, they would all cluster on the underside of the nest, in the shade. As the sun started going down and the temperature started cooling off, they would crawl up to the topside of the nest and absorb some heat for the coming cooler night.
For the next month, I watched the wasps building up and maintaining their nest. The diameter of the nest is now about 13 cm (about 7 inches), and the wasps show no inclination to slow down their activity.
But now the Arizona monsoon is gathering. This is a time of violent rainstorms and thunderstorms. Each morning during the monsoon the day dawns clear and sunny, but by noon the clouds gather and the rain starts, lasting in fitful bursts of moisture through the early evening hours, and sometimes throughout the night.
I know that the rains are coming, and when they arrive, the paper construction of the wasp nest will be destroyed. Yet the wasps continue unfazed by the coming prospect of losing their nest.
I can say that the wasps are operating on sheer instinct and have no prior knowledge of the coming debacle that will engulf their home. But then I think of how we humans do exactly the same thing, even though we supposedly are aware of the consequences. I remember watching villagers build houses of out lava on the slopes of a still-rumbling and smoking volcano in Guatemala. And I lived in San Francisco, where everyone knows that a big earthquake is going to arrive someday, but everyone hopes that it won’t be during their time.
We humans live in perilous places and we hope for the best. Perhaps the wasps are also hoping for the best. (I’m sure that some dogmatic scientists will say that wasps are not capable of hope, to which my reply is, how exactly do you know this, other than through your unverified opinion?).
But it does show that we humans and the wasps have something in common: We all are reluctant to leave behind the place that we call home.