The wasps that kept us alert
in and out the door all summer
stir as I handle their nest,
wing-blur whirling them lazily away,
vivid but harmless, their legs —
jointed topaz threads —
dangling beneath jetty abdomens.
In late May
the nest mushroomed from the eaves,
a gray, upside-down toadstool
attended by two single-minded wasps.
They were far enough away to leave alone
but close enough to watch.
In the natural sciences I am a tourist,
so I checked out a guidebook:
The Social Insects.
the nest resembled a champagne glass,
effervescent with newly hatched workers —
robots, according to the book,
programmed by genes to obey chemicals
that attendants lick off the queen.
Their communication system was designed
by the genius that put pleasure in sex:
when fed, larvae secrete a milky goo
adults crave and pass mouth to mouth,
a communal addiction that governs workflow,
triggering the queen’s directives
literally through feedback.
Scabrous, unbelievably light,
the nest enchants my fingertips.
Among empty cells
five domed ones constellate a star.
They blur when I twirl the stem
and the thing becomes a mandala,
emblem of Cosmos — the human nest —
a people’s single-mindedness
woven of ritual and myth,
scripture and faith, and for some
but not us — politics.
I remember Norman O. Brown
lecturing on Pound’s Cantos,
chagrinned because he could not salvage
the word totalitarian.
The domed cells entomb pupae.
At the ragged end of her rope of ovaries,
the queen grew comatose, cold.
Workers stopped feeding the larvae
then abandoned the nest.
Males mated and died.
Young females packed sperm and fled.
They alone survive the winter,
sheltered under bark,
in beams of outbuildings, crevices of rock.
You’ll see them flying around
sluggishly in early spring,
A good hot day will bring it all back —
nectar will be right where they left it.
Polistes always build from scratch,
unable to use an old nest —
one of the infinite, minute mysteries
that feed entomologists.
I found this one in a footnote:
workers that desert the nest in early fall
may find a sunny spot on a wall somewhere
and, individually, pulp wood
with manic drive before cold kills them,
going through the motions of building a nest.
Severed from the queen’s intelligence
they can only construct splotches of carton
that have no apparent use, though
a waspish prof I know would call them
an end-game, their post-modern art.