IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fleeing the city for a quieter life? Bring a tennis racket — to swat the cicada killer wasps

Trust me when I tell you that, regardless of the suburb, country village or exurb to which you go, you will find horrifying invertebrates awaiting you.
Japanese giant hornet
The Japanese giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) is a subspecies of the world's largest hornet, the Asian giant hornet.Queserasera99 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

New Yorkers and other city dwellers have probably dealt with cockroaches, ants, mice and even rats. Maybe they've dealt with bedbugs, centipedes, pantry beetles or moths.

But trust me when I tell you that depending on the suburb, country village or exurb to which you might go to escape the COVID-19 bug, you may yet find some horrifying invertebrate surprises await you.

I speak from experience.

When I married my husband, Carl, and moved from Highlands, New Jersey, into his house a few miles away in Tinton Falls one spring in the 1990s, there were six of what I thought were boxelder bushes — all the same size, with small green leaves — along the front of the house. I never paid any particular attention to them, envisioning just replacing them with a few bushes with more personality down the line.

Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

That fall, the bushes seemed to be moving, like the mobilizing forest in "Macbeth." We found, on closer inspection, that black-and-red boxelder bugs, which look like elongated flies, were swarming over every square inch of greenery. My husband said it had never happened before.

I contacted the cooperative extensions of three states to learn if there was something — anything — we could do about the bugs. The information they sent almost made me wish we had carpenter ants. Or termites. Even carpenter ants and termites.

It was our misfortune that the species just loves those bushes and boxelder maple trees — hence the name. They also like the warmth of human homes and the taste of human flesh, and their feces stains fabric.

So we did what any weak-stomached homeowners would do: We uprooted the bushes before Thanksgiving and left them at the curb for the town to pick up.

It didn't stop the boxelder bugs, although they did give us about 10 months of peace. But the following fall and winter, on warm, sunny days they would reappear on the front of our house and on our windows, like the spirit of someone who had died in a house and remained there to haunt it. We fought the ones we could reach with fly swatters and cleaned up the mess afterward. Carl sprayed a mixture of dish soap and water to kill those high up, eliminating hundreds. They returned, autumn after endless autumn; on cold days, the smart ones found their way indoors.

Finally, one year, we found boxelder bug nests in two of the trees that serve as the border between us and the church field next door they use for various activities and so forth. The tree service the church generously hired to remove them identified them, unsurprisingly, as boxelders; once they were gone, only a couple bugs ever returned to haunt us.

But in the mid-2000s, the brown marmorated stink bugs arrived. They are indeed brown, the Penn State Extension describes them as shield-shaped and, as their name implies, they can release a terrible odor as a defense. Similar to boxelder bugs, they liked to sun themselves on our siding and windows —and they liked to enter the house.

After learning more about them on the news — that infestation, we weren't alone in our swarms of new friends — we broke down and attacked the second menace with chemicals. The stink bugs have (mostly) disappeared by now; we’re not sure why. But, still, we cannot rest.

This year, for several weeks, Carl has been fighting cicada killer wasps, also known as giant cicada killers, which have been digging tunnels in our front yard and leaving a large trail of soil outside each hole. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University explains they’re also known as sand hornets — although they’re not actual hornets.

The wasps are black with yellow stripes on their abdomen. The females — which are the ones that find and kill the cicadas and drag them into the tunnels to feed the next generation of giant cicada killers — can grow to nearly 2 inches long. The males, which don’t sting, fly around the tunnels to protect them — which means there are always about 15 zipping around us when we walk out the front door. They are menacing, even without a stinger. Luckily, the adults only fly and, I assume, live from July to September, so we only have a few more weeks of this.

Carl told me they had occasionally appeared in past years, before we met, and I’ve wondered if the bugs are worse this year. It certainly feels that way.

After dark and at first light, Carl’s out in our yard, filling the holes with a liquid insect killer, hoping to kill the females in the tunnels and destroy the nests. If they try to escape, he stomps them and kills them that way. The Rutgers site recommends homeowners capture them with a butterfly net or hit them with a tennis racket. (Carl tried a racket and didn’t have much luck; perhaps he needs to work on his backhand.)

In my better moments, I try to see these scourges over the years as somehow in keeping with nature's grand scheme — the circle of life and all that. Besides the damage insects can inflict and the ick factor, some do a lot of good.

However, new nonurbanites ought to know what they may be in for: It's not all quaint houses and pretty sunsets and idyllic pastures out here beyond the skyscrapers. Not every yard will have the same pests we’ve had over the years; after all, we've never had a single "murder hornet" (yet). But if you are graced with any as irksome as ours — and there are many — it helps to have a strong constitution, a quick foot and a handy tennis racket.