Close Encounters of the Natural Kind
What to do and not to do when wild things move in
by Sandra Olivetti Martin with Vicki Marsh, Valerie Lester and Margaret Tearman
Illustrations by Betsy Kehne
The bee zipped past my ear. Involuntarily, I ducked. Though by now I figured there was all buzz and no bite to this bee. In a week or so of cohabitation, the big bee had done nothing worse than buzz a beeline past me on its way to my lingerie chest. Nothing worse, that is, than move in.
In the allocation of fault, I am not entirely free from blame. I like open windows. So do the cats and the dog, who love to sun on the deck outside the bedroom slider.
In through that open window one fine April day zoomed a big bee.
I don’t kill bees, or shriek and run. Instead, I sit still, assuming that if I don’t bother them, they won’t bother me. Usually, I’m right.
So I sat still at my dressing table as the bee buzzed by. When I got up, I opened the window wider. Usually that works except for big horseflies. Birds almost always find their way out. Eventually, this bee zoomed back out.
Four or five mornings later, the bee was coming closer, and I was ducking. We were both getting used to the buzz-and-duck routine. This bee more properly bees, though about the plural I was still mostly in denial was not visiting. It had moved in. Its departures were trips to the grocery store.
It was time to figure out where the bee was staying.
The logical place seemed the lingerie chest, for every time I drew close enough to open a drawer, I set off a symphony of buzzing, a deep, frightful drone. These must be carpenter bees, I decided, bored into the antique mahogany of my grandmother’s chest. What to do about that puzzled me for another few days.
Meanwhile, I observed my visitors, for by now more than one bee came at a time.
Not the chest itself but what was on top of it interested those bees. On top stood an antique tailor’s box divided into many drawers and pockets. All the pockets were stuffed with balls and skeins of knitting yarn. Deep in the yarn in one of the pockets, the bees had set up housekeeping.
Who Are These Bees?
Peaceable coexistence was possible, though probably not a good idea.
But I wasn’t eager to disturb that yarn.
Rather than action, I turned to research. Just who were these invading bees?
I knew just the person to undertake that discovery. Vicki Marsh, whose fascination with honeybees had led to the Bay Weekly story [Peering into the Secret Life of Bees: Vol. xiii, No. 31]. Maybe we’d make a story out of this, too.
“What do they look like?” Marsh wanted to know.
“Large and zooming; fuzzy yellow and black bees that announce themselves with loud buzzing.”
“Show me a picture,” Marsh said.
I complied, but my digital image didn’t show much more than a dimly lit flying insect.
By now, I could add detail. There was a black dot on the head of these bees, and they were big as a colossal black olive, though not so fat and fuzzier.
What they were doing in my yarn remained a mystery, though I doubted they were knitting. I suspected they were making a hive, but that was another possibility I didn’t want to think too much about.
With those details, Marsh searched the Internet and found my invaders: Bombus Hortorum, an onomatopoetic name if ever I’ve heard one, otherwise known as the bumblebee.
“Bumblebees and honeybees wasps too, for that matter are members of the same family,” Marsh reported. “The yellow-and-black, lumbering, fuzzy bumblebee is much larger than its streamlined and fast-moving gold-and-black cousin, the honeybee. Both contribute to the pollination of flowers and vegetables.”
“Their bee societies are similar in structure. Each has a queen. Waiting on the queen are both drones (lazy boy bees from unfertilized eggs) and worker bees. Queens may be pampered, but they’re not idle. A queen’s task in life is laying eggs, and she takes it seriously.”
Reading that, I thought I knew what my bees were up to. Reproduction meant it was time to worry.
“Unlike the honey bees that provide us with honey, the bumblebee serves honey only to her young,” Marsh continued.
Reading on, I feared for the condition of my yarn.
“Unlike the honeybees, bumblebees do not swarm or live in clusters in trees or man-made hives. They prefer leaf litter in hedge bottoms, old mouse holes and a cool dark place under a large stone or under the wooden floor of a garden shed.
“I could find nothing on bees nesting in sewing baskets of yarn,” Marsh concluded. “This could be a first, one for the Guinness Book of World Records.”
Why have bumblebees chosen the yarn trove, up three sunny stories in my bedroom? How to get rid of them without harming them?
When an invader decides on reproduction, action is a better course than research or worry. I knew that because many miles and years ago, my fondness for open windows coupled with misplaced tolerance to get me into a fix.
When my sons were away for the summer, an open bedroom window surely, it must have blown open; my tolerance for mosquitoes is low invited a pigeon inside. I didn’t much care for the coos, but, a mother myself, I couldn’t bear to evict this one, who was sitting on eggs by the time I discovered her.
I closed the door and ignored her.
When I finally looked, the pigeon family had made a mess that would have suited the Cat in the Hat. It didn’t suit me. I whined and moaned until my husband and a friend undertook a raid. I asked no questions about what they’d done. I was too busy scrubbing.
A more practical woman than I am, Marsh advised me.
“Literature informed me that you could control your new houseguests with aerosol,” Marsh reported. “But it failed to identify what kind of control: partial-paralysis, drop-dead-on-contact or don’t-come-back control.”
I said no to chemicals, even hair spray. A friend had tried hair spray on a big visiting black snake, with the result of making it angry.
“The best stop,” Marsh then told me, “would be to have a skunk around. Skunks are one of the few natural enemies of the bumblebee. Skunks eat bumblebees. Would you consider a deodorized skunk?”
When I said no, Marsh finally said, “Throw the sewing basket out.”
“It’s a box,” I replied.
Weeks had passed. The bees were pretty used to me by the time I finally hefted the box and flung it out the slider and onto the deck. As the angered swarm rose, I slammed the door shut.
Days later when the irate buzzing died down, I snatched back the first yarn. Skein and ball recovery continued for a week or more, each time rousing the bees’ outrage. Finally, before the rains came, I recaptured the big, heavy cardboard tailor’s box. One of the pockets was sticky with gobs of wax. Eventually, my husband brought up a shovel. By night he scooped up the remaining buzzing yarn and flung it into the ground cover below.
At last, my bumblebees were back where they belonged, in the green litter below a hedge.
Scene 2: The Lester Foxes
In more ways than one, when my bees visited, I was not alone.
“I know all about invasion,” Annapolitan Valerie Lester replied when I told her about my bees. “Let me tell you about my foxes.”
“Last summer, as I wrote in Bay Weekly, foxes were born under my neighbors’ deck [Earth Journal: Our New Neighbors, the Foxes, coincidentally the same issue as Vicki Marsh had written about bees: Vol. xiii, No. 31].
“They came back, but this year’s litter was born under our deck.
“It was a nightmare. Those cute cubs were responsible for heinous acts of ornithological and horticultural terrorism. We felt invaded by vandals …”
Scene of the Crime: Lester’s Report
Our deck is quite large, built over an old concrete slab. It stands about a foot off the ground and has a crawl space under it suitable for and attractive to small animals.
I was out on the deck, reading in a lounge chair, when it occurred to me something was living underneath. It sounded as though someone was knocking at a door beneath the deck. Then I heard the unmistakable yipping of fox cubs.
I didn’t mind at first; they are so damn cute.
“Their exuberance was their downfall. As they grew, they expanded the territory of their nightly prowls, entering what I call my secret garden. It’s a shady place with a path running through it where I have planted a variety of interesting ferns and some giant, blue-green hostas interspersed with white impatience and peace lilies. In their exuberance I could hear them from my bedroom window the cubs would jump on the plants, roll on them, rip them up, and scatter them hither and thither.
I was not amused. If the cubs were big enough to vandalize so effectively, they were old enough to move out.
Loud noises, Light and Lock Out
My husband Jim went on-line and researched humane ways of ridding a property of foxes. Not easy, he learned. Most of the websites were located in Britain, which may have something to do with the recent fox-hunting ban over there. The thrust of their suggestions was to make the area surrounding the den site inhospitable. Loud noises, lights and blocking up the entrance to, and the bolthole from, the den were prescribed.
We followed the suggestions, blocked the crawl space with logs, except for the bolthole, and advised our next-door neighbors to do the same. I stomped around on top of the deck and yelled a lot, making as much noise as I could, but no cubs nor mother fox ran out as I had hoped.
So, that night, we armed ourselves with flashlights and our horrendously noisy leaf blower. We flashed and blew under the deck until we were convinced that nothing could tolerate such disturbance, even though in the dark we could not be certain that the foxes had left. Assuming they had, however, we blocked the bolthole, and off to bed we went.
About five minutes after we had settled down, there was such a frantic yipping and thumping that we realized our efforts had been in vain. The foxes were still in residence. We dragged ourselves out of bed, went downstairs and out onto the deck, removed the log, climbed back upstairs and into bed and fell promptly asleep.
About noon the following day, I glanced across my neighbor’s yard. There playing exuberantly between her house and the neighbor’s on her other side were the fox cubs.
As quick as a flash, I replaced the log over the bolthole. I am happy to say that, three weeks later, my secret garden is beginning to recover.
Scene 3: The Tearman Blacksnake
In Chesapeake Country, we are seldom alone. Another Bay Weekly writer, Margaret Tearman, made that uncomfortable discovery as she descended her staircase …
Pppssstttt! Hey you …
Our front door, with its large antique oval glass pane, sits at the foot of our main staircase. Hung on the window, outside is a big old plain grapevine wreath.
For many springs, we spied on house sparrows nesting in the wreath. From inside, we were rewarded with a birds-eye view of hatching eggs, noisy feedings and the eventual fledge. So we became accustomed to movement in the wreath.
Coming downstairs one evening, such a movement caught my eye. But it was early fall, well past nesting season. So I went for a closer look. And moved back. Fast.
The movement was not made by a cute little bird but by the flicker of a forked tongue belonging to a very large black snake, staring right back at me through the glass. I stepped closer for a second look, not believing what I was seeing.
Sure enough, the snake had slithered up the door frame and wrapped itself around the wreath as if it were a wide, black shiny ribbon. Martha Stewart would have approved. I didn’t.
As much as I love watching native critters making themselves a home, I draw the line at a forked tongue greeting and beady eyes every time I come down the stairs.
I called out to my husband Tom and asked him to please do whatever necessary to remove the serpent from the wreath.
I, of course, managed his efforts from inside.
Just Hanging Out
Tom’s first eviction attempt involved lots of hand clapping and foot stomping to encourage the snake to leave on its own for quieter accommodations. The snake showed neither irritation nor interest in the commotion.
Tom next tried the broom technique, hoping to gently nudge the snake off the wreath. Nope. Snake didn’t budge.
Using the broom handle, Tom lifted both the wreath and snake off the door and laid them on the porch floor. While telling the snake it was time to leave, he poked at it, still gently but with a bit more authority.
It must have been the tone of Tom’s voice. The snake slowly, deliberately unwrapped itself from the wreath.
We both figured the snake would now just slither away and find a new home.
But this snake was mad about its late-night eviction and was not leaving without the last word.
In a flash, it propelled itself upward at Tom, striking his hand and wrist not once, but three times. I swear that snake flew at him, its entire body airborne.
I stood in the window frantically telling Tom he had been bit, as if he hadn’t already figured that out. In spite of the amount of blood gushing from the multiple puncture wounds, he managed to pin the pissed-off snake under the broom handle. Gallantly, he grabbed the snake’s head so it wouldn’t be able to inflict further injury, and walked the intruder across the road, where it finally slithered off into the woods.
Wiping away the blood, Tom examined the bites to make sure our visitor was a non-poisonous black snake and not a deadly viper. The absence of the additional two larger fang punctures put his mind at ease. Assured he wasn’t going to die, we nonetheless decided the deep wounds and immediate swelling meant a trip to the hospital.
There Tom went from hero to a curiosity: All the doctors on duty came round to see the “guy with the snakebites.” One doctor said they “don’t get to see many snake attacks these days.”
Tom survived, albeit with a very sore, bruised and swollen hand plus a newfound respect for black snakes.
We still share our farm with wildlife, but from a much safer distance. And we have never had another nest in that wreath.
How to Rid Your Home of Uninvited Guests …
If you must
by Margaret Tearman
This time of year is birthing season, and it’s when you’ll most likely have uninvited wildlife attempting to move in. Opinions differ on what to do with critters trying to make your home theirs. We checked in with two authorities offering homeowners advice on animal evictions: The United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service and the Humane Society of the United States.
Here’s what they suggest:
Home Bee Invasion
Both organizations emphasized the first line of defense: Don’t let them in. Keep window screens free from holes, make sure pet doors close securely, don’t let doors and windows stand open and plug any holes in the house that could serve as a point of entry.
If the bees cross the border and set up housekeeping in a box or piece of furniture, both organizations suggest simply removing the nesting box from your home. If the bees are honey producers, the Department of Agriculture will provide homeowners with a list of area beekeepers who’ll want your bees.
If bees or wasps make nests in your closets or inside the walls of your home, it’s time to call in the professionals.
Find more information at University of Maryland Cooperative Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center, which offers advice by phone at 1-800-342-250, Mon.-Fri. 8am-1pm or online at www.hgic.umd.edu.
Fox Family on Deck
The USDA and Humane Society agree that it’s your responsibility to make your home and property inhospitable to all wild creatures.
Do not leave pet food bowls outside or store bags of dry food in your garage.
Make sure trashcans are secure. Keep birdfeeders away from the house.
If you still have uninvited guests, make them feel unwelcome. Make loud noises, blast them with loud music, throw things, harass them. Let them know they don’t belong. Be persistent; They usually get the idea and move on.
If the critters have taken up residence in an enclosed space, often rags soaked in ammonia or moth balls will encourage them to move out.
But if the animal shows signs of injury, sickness or aggression, both agencies warn against approaching.
Laura Simon, the Humane Society’s field director for urban wildlife, says it’s important to determine if the animal is aggressive or injured. “Some mothers pretend to have an injury to detract the intruder from her babies,” she says. “If an animal appears to be aggressive or ill, call your local animal control officer or humane society to confirm the symptoms.”
Or check the Humane Society’s website to learn more about the animal and its behavior: symptoms: www.wildneighbors.org.
“A fox family is a peaceful neighbor,” Simon says. “Having them around is like watching a live nature TV program. And foxes prey on mice and rats, so it’s nice to cohabitate. We encourage people to leave them alone and enjoy the show.”
The animal, Simon says, is not the problem. It’s a symptom. A hole in a garage or other sheltered areas invites animals in, as does any food source.
“Food sources need to be removed, and holes closed up. But before you close up holes, make sure the animals have all left. Plug it with a crumpled newspaper or paper towel so you can see if the plug has been disturbed. Or you can sprinkle flour at the entry hole and look for footprints. Once you’re sure the animal isn’t inside, permanently plug the hole.”
Snake on a Wreath
The Department of Agriculture and Humane Society agree the snake in the wreath was “hoping for a meal,” having noted the wreath as a past location of a birds nest. They suggest keeping the wreath nest free, thus removing the snake’s meal.
The snake would have eventually left on its own, driven away by its hunger rather than a man wielding a broomstick. Until it does, use another door.
But not all snakes are harmless. Ones that aren’t sometimes find their way into our homes where cohabitation is not an option.
Autumn often brings snakes in basements and other unwelcome places as they look for a spot to hibernate, according to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. On their website, you’ll find information on snake identification and instructions for safely evicting the unwanted guest: www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/snakes.asp.
For other unwanted wildlife roommates, Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Wild Acres Program provides advice on how to enjoy wild visitors without declaring war: www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife.