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The Afternoon the Wasps Went Down

How ordinary dish soap removed red wasps from my shed

My neighbor was convinced I was trying to burn down my shed. 

“Don’t you think that’s a little dangerous?” my neighbor Gary queried after rolling up on his ATV one evening. He’d noticed billows of smoke in the night sky and came over to investigate. Gary had that uneasy look of someone who knows a really stupid idea when he sees one.

Moments earlier, I’d pulled my portable barbecue grill into the wooden shed beside my house and lit a smoky fire.

I had not been drinking.

Men do incredibly stupid, reckless things in the name of defending their property. Red wasps were my problem. They’d moved into my shed. This is every man’s mission in life, if he’s anything. Building contraptions and blowing things up to solve problems is what we do. We call it bravery. Superior intellect. No non-human creature is going to enter our castle without a brawl.

For the second year in a row, I was being invaded by hordes of annoying, angry red wasps. They’d built a nest in the rafters. Their sentinels remained perched on the roof’s edge daily. Whenever I would approach, their guards lifted off, swirling around my head as if they owned the place. I had no choice. No flying insect was going to chase me out of my castle, not on my watch.

And so one night after sunset I rolled my grill into the shed. This was my only option. I will not claim this was a great idea or even a brave idea. But this was my plan. I would start a fire in my shed. Wood smoke, I decided, would crush my opponent. True, I probably sensed I might burn down the shed—along with my house—and lose everything I owned and be the fool of the neighborhood.

Reluctantly, I’d put a large metal plate to catch sparks under the portable grill. Plus I had my garden hose ready. Anything more would be sensible.

Then Gary showed up. He had that look.

“Have you tried liquid dish soap?” Gary asked after staring at the smoking time bomb. “Soap will kill wasps.”

I thought: Of all of the preposterous, redneck, stupid home remedies I’d ever heard of, using dish soap to kill wasps instantly topped the list.

Gary explained how he puts liquid soap into a spray bottle with a little water, then sprays a stream of it to kill unwanted wasps around his house. He has a newborn baby to protect.

“It works,” he promised.

“Uh-huh,” I might’ve said.

What a dumb idea. But so was the idea to put a barbecue grill in my shed. Gary stood in the driveway and watched the shed churn smoke and clearly wanted to turn on the garden hose and save everything I own. But Gary knows the rules. Men don’t interfere with another man’s right to do incredibly stupid things. We offer technical advice. We offer tools. But we don’t enforce the use of common sense.

And so we both stood in the driveway watching the smoke roll into the night sky as one might watch a car race, waiting for a massive wreck. Neither of us spoke. I knew it was a dumb idea. Gary knew it was a dumb idea. We just waited and watched as all men do.

My battle with the wasps actually began last year. After the hordes moved in, I was evicted from my shed for the entire summer. Their hidden paper nest grew daily under the roof. Depending on the time of day, I was allowed only brief visitation to dart inside, grab whatever I needed—a chain saw or a hammer—before the alarmed wasps would escort me outside. In the evening, I was seen as the hostile intruder. I’d flick on the lights to do some woodworking, and the wasps would be there, flexing their wings. The sound of my band saw infuriated them. Down they would come, legs dangling.

I completed no woodworking projects last summer.

Of course I am not the first man in America to have a wasp problem. Chemical companies figured out this consumer need long ago and gave mankind what amounts to death in a can. And I could have easily bought and used one of those jet-spray insecticide blasts against the loathsome invaders.

But I’m a reasonable man and a fair fighter. Chemical warfare is not my thing. I run a Green household. Nature is my friend. I understand the value of pollinator bees and I do what I can to protect our wild allies. But this was my shed and I own it. The wasps clearly had to go.

After spending one summer banned from my own shed, unable to figure out an environmentally safe way to rid myself of those freeloading, wing-flexing tenants, winter arrived. The wasps disappeared. One cold day in December I opened the shed to confront the idle nest, which was accessible by ladder. I put on gloves, climbed the ladder and I served my eviction notice by hand.

Down came the nest.

For a while, my shed once again belonged to me. Woodworking resumed.

And then spring arrived and the wasps that had spent the winter elsewhere began building a new nest in the same place. Just as they did last year, their defiant guards stood at the eaves of my shed and flexed their wings in the sunlight, intimidating all who dared approach.

This year I was not going to take it.

Which brings us to my brilliant idea of rolling my barbecue grill into my shed to create a giant smoke bomb.

And then Gary showed up with his preposterous suggestion about soap. I didn’t even consider it. I knew deadly smoke was the real answer, and so I let the grill smolder until I went to bed, confident I had solved everything.

But in the morning the red wasps that had flown out of the smoke during the night returned. And so I started another fire. Away flew the wasps. When the fire was out, the wasps returned. And so I built another fire.

I had entered a battle of endurance. But I was had this advantage: No wasp anywhere can outlast a man’s determination to be stupid. Each day I built a smoldering, choking smoke bomb in my shed, heaping leaves and sawdust on the grill, and each day the red wasps would fly away, only to return when the fire went out.

The heat of battle continued, off and on, for more than a week. Each time I decided the intense smoke would finally, once and for all, convince the wasps to abandon their colony, the wasps would return. Gary saw the smoke rising each day from across the road, waiting for the inevitable flames to appear above my shed. There would be sirens. Neighbors would stand in the street, pointing, exchanging comments. The thing is, Gary was right. What I was doing was an idiotically stupid, reckless obsession with danger. Not only did I risk burning down my shed to rid myself of a mere insect—my strategy didn’t work at all.

After two weeks of fiery battle, the wasps carried on in full force, perched on my eaves, defiant as ever, glaring at me.

And so I called a cease fire. For a moment anyway.

I retreated into the house and regrouped. It was the phase of battle where desperate generals plot their final military strategy. My options hadn’t changed. I remained the fair-fighter, the Green warrior. And so there was only one, last option, I decided.

It was the insane option.

Military historians and analysts know there is a tendency among defeated warriors mounting desperate reprisal attacks. Those desperate, once-defeated warriors tend to choose reckless, brazen strategies that cannot possibly work—and yet they go for it. Even as they know they have absolutely no chance of beating the enemy, they rage forward with screaming, insane battle cries. They throw empty pistols at tanks. They run toward flashing cannons with handfuls of dirt, shouting.

I was now that insane warrior. After more than a week of failed smoke bombs, I was willing to try a strategy I knew was truly preposterous.

This would be my final battle, my last mission.

I walked into my house and knelt down in front of the sink. I found an empty spray bottle in the cabinet and unscrewed the cap. I found a bottle of liquid dishwashing soap. Into the spray bottle I poured half a cup of liquid soap, then added another half cup of water, enough to thin the thick soap for spraying.

I stood up. In the distance of my imagination I heard the faint sound of military taps. I stepped outside, the soapy mixture sloshing in the bottle as I walked. I stopped, faced the shed, and stood before my enemy. The red wasps were all there waiting for me above. Their mechanical, robotic heads twisted downward. Sentinels and guards organized themselves at the edge of the roof.  

I tried to believe. But I knew the odds. I had the confidence of a man about to throw an empty pistol at a tank.

But this was my destiny. This was my moment. I raised the spray bottle, arm outstretched, and pointed it directly at the enemy.

I let them have it.

All of us know soap and water is nothing more than soap and water. In happy TV commercials, rosy babies giggle with delight in baths of bubbles. Puppies chase bubbles in the air. Doctors before surgery wash down with soap and feel confident they are good doctors. No harm shall result from the use of soap. I knew as well as anyone that I was about to be swarmed and instantly killed by the flying red bombers. There would be no mercy. I knew I would be toppled by wasps and stung as no man has ever been stung before. The wasps would win. But I would die as men must die.

Local papers would carry headlines about a man who was found dead in his driveway with a spray bottle filled with soapy water and hundreds of red welts.

“Funeral Thursday for World’s Dumbest Man,” the papers would announce. “Experts Baffled by Senseless Military Strategy.”

Children would ride their bicycles past my house and laugh. Babies in soap bubbles would giggle.

This was my fate and I accepted it.

For those familiar with classical music and those dramatic war movies that show gruesome battle scenes in ultra-slow motion, here’s what happened.

I recall it now in slow motion, the haunting, funereal music, the bottle squeaking like a rubber balloon as streams of harmless soap glided skyward. Slowly, as the torrents cascaded onto the red wasp’s defensive position and the music rose, the once-invincible wasps and their pose of menace shifted, first into a slow-motion flexing of wings, then into angry, frenetic, all-out-battle response.

Death was in the air.

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was playing. It rose to a crescendo. With each pull of my trigger, more harmless, ineffectual soap bombarded their defensive position in slow-motion crashes. The now-infuriated wasps began to release their defensive hold. The doomed warrior continued his futile, rapid-fire squeezing of the trigger. The end was near.

But that, my fellow Americans, is not the end of this story. Military historians and analysts know there are rare occasions when armies of thousands can be defeated by bold, insanely reckless advances of an inferior opponent. Surprise attacks by three soldiers with empty pistols or handfuls of dirt have been known to capture a battalion.

Years from now, I will be telling this exact story wherever veterans gather to recount the wars of their lifetime. For not only did I survive my soap-water offensive, I totally crushed my enemy. Instead of angry swarms of red wasps rocket-firing their venom, the lone warrior with the bottle of soap somehow, unbelievably, prevailed. The wet ground was soon covered by heaps of them, stunned and suffocated by the film of soapy water. They staggered among comrades for a few seconds, then perished.

The music rose again. I scanned the battlefield.

Holdouts from the hidden sanctuary crept out to the daylight and dropped to the ground, defeated. Not a single wasp could fly with soap on its wings. It was a complete and overwhelming victory against impossible odds.

Later that evening Gary rolled up again on his ATV. He noticed there wasn’t any smoke and came over to investigate. I had to tell him something that men do not often say.

“Gary,” I said. “You were right.”

“You tried the soap?” he responded cheerfully.

The fact is, ordinary liquid soap in a spray bottle works as well as anything I’ve ever tried when it comes to dropping and killing wasps around the house. And, as a reformed smoker, I feel compelled now to brag about my personal success.

The only problem with being a reformed smoker is that nobody believes you when you try to convert them.

So be it. But soap does work.

And please don’t burn down your house.

By: Joe McFarland