This odd January is full of grey and wet and wind. The unusual weather seems a misstep in the cycle of the year. Birds that should have traveled long before to warmer climes may find themselves in perilous and dire straits when the course of the season corrects itself with an icy rein. For now they fill their bellies with the leavings of a fall harvest that by all rights should be buried under a covering of wintry white. The creatures that live by the length of the days and the angle of the earth have been caught unawares by this suspicious lack of seasonal scenery and oddities abound.
As the year cools through the autumn months we usually play host to a variety of uninvited guests. Members of the indigenous bug population find their way inside drawn by the comparative warmth and the availability of entrance due to the idiosyncrasies of an old house. The most common immigrants are Asian beetles, spiders and oddly enough mud dauber wasps. Unlike the beetles or spiders, the wasps are always found below ground in the basement.
These basement visitors are known as black and yellow mud daubers. They use mud to build small nests that can be found in sheltered places such as eaves or porches. Usually an inch or so in length they are impossibly slender at the waist (hence the term "wasp-waisted”) and black and gold in colour. When in flight the hind legs dangle down, equal in length to the body, seeming to increase the overall size to twice the height. The glossy wings are long and graceful. The head is well shaped, crowned with a tiara of ebony antennae and accented by black orbs full of age old wisdom and power. All-in-all the mud dauber is an impressive creature.
It is somewhat of a mystery how something the size of a mud dauber could make its way inside. We’ve a variety of hypotheses for ingress that include entrance through the exhaust pipe of the gas furnace or through a room located off the very back of the basement. That particular room is not completely dug out and as a result carries the unknown element of an uncertain wall depth and a questionably sealed window. Whatever the way, they can be found hovering in the basement as the frost settles on the ground outside. Though the number is not great it is a startling sight to be greeted by a hovering and somewhat frazzled wasp as it searches for signs of familiarity in an unknown basement environment.
These visits occur late in the season and the mud wasp is not a social or aggressive insect so it’s been my practice to leave them alone. It does take a bit of effort to remember to look where you put your feet and hands but it’s not too much of a bother. Often I will find the alien visitor drowned in the laundry sink before too many days have passed. It seems to hold a special attraction for those late season wanderers.
Well before the ground has a chance to become snow covered the last of the wasps have gone to ground or left this world behind. This year though the unseasonable warm weather of January has created a revival in basement tourism. Unlike the wasps of late autumn these weary travelers don’t lumber through the air. As a matter of fact they can barely drag themselves across the old area carpet that covers the basement floor. A mud wasp in flight is an intimidating sight, to watch one drag itself across the floor is tragic.
Unintentionally awakened from a winter sleep, the humbled pilgrims traveling across the green wool are all potential mothers of a new line. Only the females last the winter to carry on the survival of the species. Mud daubers are not a volume reproducer. A single female will only lay approximately 15 eggs for her nest. A shame really as this type of wasp is especially beneficial in the garden, helping to keep the spider population in check. A wasp provides that control through the grizzly parasitical practice of using living prey as nutrition for her babies. Obviously we find this somewhat gruesome but for the wasp it ensures the survival of her line.
These future mothers traveling across my floor are tired and confused. Instinct tells them that it should be spring and that there are nest to be built but like Rip van Winkle they awaken to a strange and new world. As I pass by, on whatever errand that brings me below ground, the wind from my passage brushes against the gold and black bodies. Wings stir, perhaps in warning, but I like to think they stir in memory or anticipation of the spring breeze. To put them outside would mean certain death. To leave them inside, awake and confused, no real food in sight and too weak to hunt, really means the same. The unsettling warmth of this unexpected thaw has tolled a death knell for these graceful builders. They are a step out of time and as a result they will be lost along the way. Still they force themselves across the floor seeking hope in the dark corners not knowing that it is too early for the new life they carry, too late for the old they lived and only a few more steps to oblivion.
The cold will return and I will sweep up the remains of those stalwart travelers resting in those dark corners. Nothing will be left of the potential lost under the grey rainy skies of unseasonable January weather, a step out of their time and just a husk and a memory in ours.