I stumbled groggily down the stairs in the early morning light  As I walked across the kitchen on my way to start a fire in the wood burning stove, I spied a piece of debris on the maple floor. Thinking it was a piece of firewood scrap, I bent down to pick it up. I stopped in mid bend when the piece of scrap showed life by moving a half inch on its own power. This was no skittering cockroach or shy millipede.  A closer look revealed a thin-waisted wasp, plodding  lethargically across the floor. It moved like it had had a hard Friday night of partying and was now trying to stagger to the coffee pot.

I wondered how this unseasonable wasp could have survived the winter. Obviously it had found refuge from last fall’s killing frost by crawling into some cranny of this century old house. And now, it’s biological clock or the March temperatures had beckoned its slow-moving resurrection. Unlike my constant internal furnace which runs at about 98.6°F, the inner fires of insects are roughly the same as the air temperature surrounding them. So on this late winter morning the kitchen and the wasp share a temperature of roughly 54° F. If my fire building skills prevail, the kitchen will quickly warm up much faster than the wasp’s own fires.

Was this the sole  survivor  of last summer’s extended  wasp family where scores, or more likely, hundreds of brothers and sister wasps share a colony? Normally, the only one to survive a winter is a fertilized female (queen)  who finds shelter before winter and then shuts down her bodily functions and hibernates through the long winter. When she emerges in the spring, she alone makes a small paper nest and begins the job of egg laying. These first eggs and ensuing large and wasps will be her first workers to help her expand her nest and family.

So was this glacially moving wasp a pregnant female? I will confess for a split second I considered a perfunctory stomping on the wasp. Like most humans, I have been conditioned since I was a wee larvae to step on bugs. . . especially out-of-place bugs that roam inside our dwellings.  And usually judgement is quickly dispatched if those critters have eight legs (spiders) or  wear alternating bands of yellow and black and are thin-waisted, like wasps and hornets. From an early age we are mistakenly taught that these are the enemy. When in fact they provide far more benefits than threats.

Sure a wasp sting burns painfully and for roughly two percent of the population, such a sting can initiate anaphylactic shock which is a sometimes fatal allergic reaction. What folks fail to realize that stinging insects like hornets and wasps do not go around looking for some beast to sting. They sting only when they feel threatened or when their colony is threatened. And spiders are no different. Rarely do they ever bite and when they do it is only as a defensive act.

Squishing bugs is so acceptable among our judging species, that we even use the action as a teaching tool. Just yesterday I was out cross country skiing with a chiropractor friend . It’s never a bad idea to ski with a good chiropractor; particularly when you’re over fifty years old. He had taken a lesson in trying to refine and improve his classic skiing technique. One of the tricks in climbing hills more efficiently to reduce the likelihood of slipping back is  deliver a dramatic weight shift from  one foot to the other, is to pretend you are “squishing a bug.” Yep, there it is a lesson learned that legitimizes the universal act of murdering  innocent arthropods with no questions asked.

In researching my book, Things that Bite: The Truth about Critters that Scare People, I learned, in my unofficial sampling, that over 98% of respondents never hesitated to stomp on a spider or wasp found crawling in the house. One friend, a WWII Marine vet who saw horrific close combat throughout the South Pacific has quietly shared grisly tales of close combat. Yet, he proudly  told me that for over fifty years he has never intentionally stepped on a wasp. He catches and frees all of them.

I recall many episodes of teaching kids when all attention was shaken when an autumn  hornet or wasp flew overhead, bumping into fluorescent lights. Looks of horror, escape movements, like leaning low in their chairs and scared utterances always followed the initial spotting of the frantic wasp. I always took the moment to try and calmly tell the kids that this wasp had no intention of flying down and stinging them. It was only trying to find a way out. If possible I would catch it in front of the kids and let it go outside.

Twenty minutes had passed after successfully getting a lively fire built and a cup of stout coffee in front of me.  I was sitting in a chair in front of the stove with the good company of a book and coffee, when I suddenly remembered the shapely-waisted insect company. I got up, looked around and found that even in her tortoiselike speed she had obviously left me alone. She was nowhere in sight. I looked under the table and chairs and scanned the rest of the kitchen field. No luck.

My hope is that she will find refuge in some corner of the kitchen, far away from foot traffic so there will be inadvertent defensive stings or accidental squishings.  In a few weeks, when the march of Earth’s  orbit takes us past the spring equinox and the world is clearly blooming into spring, I’ll carefully slide a piece of paper under the wasp and carry her outside and watch her crawl onto the lilac bush that is on the south side of the house so she can be witness to the swelling of green lilac buds while feeling the direct warmth of the sun.