This summer, I discovered wasps possess swarm intelligence, and bonder with them over water

One morning, when I was thinking what water means to all of us, I saw a swarm of wasps rushing, not at me, but at the water. This is the story of how I bonded with a wasp over water.

Neha Sinha
| Updated: July 9th, 2020

Each time I had water in my hands, they would be there.

Of course one can’t really have water in one’s hands – but whenever I would try to direct water on my plants through my hands– a shining stream of water falling from a tin can I would hold, or from a mug– orange-yellow paper wasps would be around my fingers and the water in an instant.

The paper wasps, the tatiya, are a childhood memory of pain – these are the kind that bite, once, twice, many times. They are not ones to shy away from us, we the mistresses of our gardens.

It already feels like it has been summer forever. Each Indian summer marks out its boundaries—the boundary between light and shade can be the difference between exhaustion and relief. The difference between a place with trees and a place without trees is a boundary drawn with sun, and water. Places with trees will have water, and will retain water when it rains. The kaleidoscope of the moving tree leaves saves you from the directness of the gaze of the heat. And during this pandemic, everything is more stark, more brutal and cutting.

So when I was holding up a tin can, decorated with flowers, the back of my neck burning in early morning, too hot sunshine, I tried to think more about what water means to all of us, and less about the wasps stinging me.

The wasps rushed not at me, but at the water, because water is worth more than gold in summer. And fresh water sources have reduced not just for us, but for nature. In Pench tiger reserve, I have seen our distant kin—a rhesus macaque monkey, twisting open a tap, desperate for a drop of water. In Mumbai, my friend reported a Purple-rumped sunbird coming to drink a drop of water falling from his air conditioner.

Wasps. Photo: Neha Sinha

Perhaps we have become so used to finding water when we need it – from a mineral water can when it is not available in taps – we have forgotten what it means to crave water. It’s not just for the wasps. It’s also for our fellow people.

Forty-five degree Celsius is forty-five excess degrees of cruelty in a land where people are walking home, endlessly, soundlessly, uncomplainingly. When asked to intervene in the matter of migrants walking home—and getting crushed by trains—the Supreme Court refused to intervene. The Court said it could not do anything if people were walking everywhere. But, hope—and humanity—came from High courts. Andhra Pradesh High Court directed the state to provide shelter and precious drinking water to people walking homewards. That was the equivalent of the court underlining the obvious – water is a right.

That morning, watching a little ecosystem coming up around the water—birds were eyeing the puddle just like the wasps—I was afraid of being stung as the animals tried to access the water. Perhaps what we fear is being inconsequential to the plans of a wild animal. The knowledge that the wasp will carry on with its life after stinging a soft-skinned human can be confusing to our ideas of being in control. I had to move a water cooler, after having tended to the plants. I hoped there were no wasps in the cooler, because since childhood I have seen them nesting in places directly proportionate to our presence and handling.

I couldn’t see any wasps, and I thought all was clear. I pushed the machine. Nothing happened. And then, it was like a swarm of locusts had been unleashed. Only it was not locusts, but the tatiya, ten of them dislodged from the cooler. I saw them as a blur of fear, as they buzzed around me, their wings like gossamer in their angry, swift flight, a few of them brushing past my skin in their surprise.

If more than one wasp bit me, I’d need medical help. Just how far was I willing to take my love for animals, during the pandemic when hospitals were full?

I was at the mercy of animals which were rightfully angry – I had dislodged them from their home. My bare arms and legs seemed pitifully fragile. At that moment, the insects – a fraction of my size, and possessing none of the huge human ego—seemed much larger than me.

I was blinking, I was squealing.

And then, they were gone.

Wasps have swarm intelligence. They can call each other if they need help—such as when warding off a threat to their nest. They are like a collective consciousness, communicating in ways we can’t. And that day, by the grace of a swarm of wasps, I had been spared.

Inside the cooler was the biggest wasp nest I had ever seen. Normally, the nests have four or five cells. This one had fifteen. Inside, larvae moved, fragile, caterpillar-like and helpless.

Wasp larvae. Photo: Neha Sinha

I wanted them to live. They would be dehydrated in minutes. I leaned forward to pick up the nest. I felt like I was being stung, even though I was not.

I put the nest in a pot near the place where the cooler was. Now, it was a question of bringing the queen back. While wasps have a bad reputation of being killers, they kill insects mainly for feeding their young. The adults also drink nectar, like bees. How would the mother come back?

I brought out the water can.

Like the answer to a cosmic call for water in a heatwave, she came.

It was time to leave both the nest and my ego behind. The water connected both of us briefly, but it was her good judgment that had spared me for that day.

Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society. (Views are personal)