Monday, September 12, 2011

It's an insect's life

This summer the black Muscat grapes hanging over the terrace have been very successful, the bunches are big and most of the individual grapes have ripened. There seems to be no single reason why they should be better this summer than in any previous, no reason to believe that the experience will be repeated in the next.
Picking them is a hazardous business. The terrace chairs are not quite high enough, the step-ladder is nearing the end of its life. Neither are a solid base for an elderly person stretching uncertainly up with a pair of scissors or pruners above the head. And then there are the hornets and the wasps who also like grapes. So much care has to be exercised in order not to get either of those unfriendly insects in one's hand at the same time as the grapes.
At least the ripe grapes have distracted them from the lure of the night-time terrace lights from which they used to recoil, stunned, to fall on innocent people at table and – by sheer reflex, I am sure – sting. After several unfortunate experiences of wasp and hornet stings, with increasingly strong reactions on my part, I have reluctantly hung a trap in the grape vine. The trap is a simple one, idea courtesy of Le Chasseur Franรงais: take a bog standard plastic water or soft drink bottle, cut off the top one third of the neck and invert into the bottom, seal with broad sellotape and fix some way of hanging it up. Put some sweet product in the bottom – beer, jam, honey – and hang up.
The result is murder.
All through the meals on the terrace, the attempt at a quiet time to read, or just to enjoy the sunset, and one is aware of the hornets – and it is mostly hornets in the trap – drowning. Concentrating on the meal can block out the sound a very little but that relaxing period after the meal, with that one extra glass of wine, is no longer so comfortable. All sorts of philosophical questions about the balance of the relationship between man and insect arise, unformulated and unexplored for it is too warm and too much wine has been drunk. But I feel bad about killing the hornets, perhaps because they seem to be so terminally stupid, because they are smaller than me.
But now, each time that I get stung, my body's reaction is more severe, lasts longer and, like the hornet, I have developed a reflex, or rather a variety of reflex actions. Inside the house, downstairs, at strategic points there are surplus badminton racquets. I use them to entangle the hornet and hopefully convey it back outside via a door or a window. Sometimes the straw broom fulfills the same function, it has a longer handle and can reach the ceilings. But I am very tense and worried that the wretched insect will fall on me – and sting me.
In the attic rooms I am less gentle and just use the all purpose aerosol insect killer as there is no way of letting them out. This year there have not been as many hornets as usual in the attic which I put down to the fact that we have eliminated two nests outside – and that they are more attracted by the grapes, so stay outside. I still hate killing insects.
When I first came to England, in 1950, I went to a very modern school with big windows. There was a fly buzzing against the window pane, in that irritating way that flies have. Kindly I decided to to let it out. I lifted up the window catch, opened it and let the fly out. The wind caught the window and it broke. This cost my parents £5 – a lot of money in the 1950's. I look at the wasp trap and recall that good, but expensive deed.

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