Wild things - BlueStone Press
December 8, 2021
BSP Column

Wild things

Bears, yellowjackets and humans

Black bears at the house in Kerhonkson
by Ann Belmont
Posted

If you live near the woods, you know they’re around. Just leave a bird feeder out in April, and you will find it pillaged and destroyed sooner or later. One morning this spring, I glanced out the window and was transfixed by the sight of a big mama bear sauntering across the yard with one – two – three! half-grown cubs behind her, tussling and playing. Mama seemed attracted to a yellowjacket trap I had hung on the clothesline. I watched the little family till Mama started to exit the yard, then I went to the door and yelled, “Hey!” The cubs scampered into the woods, but she turned around and gave me the eye for a long moment, as if to say, “What do YOU want?” before continuing on her stately way.

That was the only time I saw them all together. The cubs were getting too big to be tagging after Mama and she probably gave them the boot, but single bears have come by on occasion all summer. I'll hear a grunting noise, some rustling, look up to see a bear chomping on a sapling, or just passing through. Probably one of the former cubs, now almost full-size. Our yard seems to be part of a regular route; they’ll come from the woods behind the house, cross the yard, and disappear into the woods behind the garden shed. I had always assumed that bears were basically nocturnal creatures, but it’s not so. They show up any old time. My husband was eating lunch on the back deck one day and I had to tell him to look up – there was a bear 20 feet away watching him eat his sandwich.

They’re fascinating creatures, but who wants to be puttering in the garden and look up to find oneself being observed by a formidable superstrong wild animal, even if black bears are not aggressive … mostly? I’m glad they’re around, just not in my backyard, OK? Or my neighbors' backyard, either, where another mama and her two cubs have been spending hours at a time stuffing themselves with acorns up in a big oak tree, even napping among the upper limbs, ignoring my neighbors. My neighbors, however, find it hard to ignore the bears.

The sense that at any time I could turn around and see a bear makes me feel, I admit, a teensy bit on guard. I haven’t been taking my usual solitary walks on the old woods road on the hill, that's for sure.

There can be side benefits to the bearish presence, however, as I found out one afternoon, coming home from a trip into town for groceries. A big piece of turf had been torn up just outside the garden fence. Huh? I went to inspect, and discovered a few yellowjackets buzzing around disoriented above their former nest, which had been ripped to shreds. Guess who! A quick internet consultation confirmed my surmise: Bears consider a bunch of yellowjacket larvae a tasty snack and don't care if they get stung.

Well! I thought. Bears as pest control! The summer of 2020, yellowjackets made our lives miserable by constructing a huge nest under the deck (under the picnic table) where we couldn’t get at it, and then defending it most assiduously. Oh, what a battle it was to get rid of them; it took weeks. I won't go into all the ugly details, but in the end, the humans won that fight.

So, I was very grateful that a bear had taken care of the new nest; sooner or later I would probably have stepped on it. Thank you, bears, thank you. Maybe I need to reconsider my policy of trying to discourage your presence. Because you may make me nervous, but yellowjackets are most definitely the enemy!

... Or are they? After all, the yellowjacket is a mostly beneficial insect that eats garden pests and pollinates flowers, when it's not trying to eat the food you're eating.

Postscript: After a bear ripped up their nest, I didn't see any more yellowjackets for a couple of days. I needed a rock; there was a nice big one by the old nest hole, so I decided to pry it out ... big mistake! They were not ALL gone, as demonstrated by the painful sting on my knee that swelled up and itched for days. Caution is always recommended when dealing with hornets of any kind.

I've decided to hold off on destroying the nest, though, which I could easily do by spraying soapy water on it at night when they're inactive. They have been keeping a very low profile, so ... live and let live. Maybe there's still enough space here for bears, yellowjackets and humans.

 

 

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