the chorister's c




4 June 1998

Late last week, I awoke in the middle of the night to a strange, faint noise in my ceiling. There is a maple tree that overhangs my house, and sometimes it blows in the wind, causing a midnight scratching. I have had house sparrows nest in the attic, and once a squirrel followed them inside, clawing up insulation and generally causing trouble.

This noise wasn't the maple tree, or birds, or a mammal. I'm a light sleeper, especially when the soundscape is unfamiliar. I pulled a pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Every half hour or so, the noise would awaken me.

Come the weekend, I got up into the attic to investigate. Mind you, just getting into my attic is a small expedition. You have to lug the heavy Z-fold ladder from the basement to the second floor, unfold it without scuffing the woodwork, pop the hatch in the ceiling, and climb up.

There's no subfloor in the attic, just the joists and the sheetrock ceiling from the second floor below. You walk splay-legged on the joists, your feet 24 inches on center.

Two years ago I replaced the roof (premature failure of FRT plywood) and added an attic fan and vent. The electrician put in a lamp fixture as a bonus -- he claimed it was code compliance. So you need a flashlight only in the dark corners. The insulation is littered with shreds of the first roof's plywood and shingles, matted down where I've walked before.

I clambered to the spot where I'd heard the noise, over in the corner where there's a gap between the roof and the exterior wall. The sparrows got in there before. I pulled up a loose batt of insulation and saw nothing. But I heard the strange noise, now clearly, not muffled by the ceiling. From under the adjacent batt came the distinct buzz of an insect, the kind with all his defenses in his abdomen. I backed off quickly. Without some defenses of my own, I didn't want to discover exactly what it was. Order Hymenoptera would be precise enough.

Now that I knew what I was dealing with, the nightly irregular buzzing in the ceiling was less distracting. I went to the hardware megamart and selected my weapon: an aerosol can of 0.2% tetramethrin, 0.2% aromatic carboxylate, and 99.6% inert ingredients.

Tuesday morning before breakfast, I returned to the attic, ready for battle. Following the can's advice, I was up there when the beasties were least active. I had a 50-cent dust mask, in the unlikely event that the poison ended up in my face, a pink pocket flashlight from the utility drawer, and a pair of kitchen tongs for picking up the insulation.

One or two buzzers stirred as I picked up the second batt of insulation, gingerly. They looked like honeybees. In the beam of my flashlight, I found the nest, a yellow comb about the size of half a cantaloupe. There were maybe a dozen bigger insects, black-bodied, buzzing more insistently. From three feet away, I opened up on the nest with the can of insecticide. A jet of white, foamy death. Oddly, it had no smell.

I dumped half the can into the nest, until only one or two critters were moving, very slowly, none of them flying. I am ashamed that I can't put a more precise name on what I was killing. Not bumblebees or carpenter bees; not the paper wasps I have found in nest boxes. I guess I'll have to settle for the general-purpose "yellow jacket."

I kept the insulation pulled away, to leave the nest exposed. A few individuals were still stirring. I sprayed another gust of toxin around the area. Unstung, I climbed downstairs and took a shower.

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©1998 David L. Gorsline.
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