The social wasp queen is responsible for building a whole world, for constructing a society. She starts by finding what seems to be a safe, sturdy place and begins by constructing a canopy made of wood fibers gathered from weathered wood and mixed with saliva. This paper-like substance will be the foundation of her new wasp civilization, and she uses it carefully, building a strong canopy from the inside out, until the canopy touches the outer edge of the cavity she has selected. In the center, beneath the canopy, she constructs the backbone and builds several cells. The first eggs will be laid here. The queen works at her task until layers of cells are constructed. Eventually enough female workers will be born and mature enough to take over the construction of the nest, leaving the queen to focus on reproduction.
Outside of this world is Madeleine, standing several feet away from where four or five wasps are tending to their new dusky brown world built sturdily into the outside corner of our garage. If we get too close, a wasp will buzz out, just a little. "If you leave them alone, they won't sting you," we tell the girls over and over again, but it doesn't stop that little frisson of fear we feel when a wasp decides to offer a warning of sorts. We step back, just a foot or so, and I wonder how we define "leave them alone," how we will know at which point we are in fact bothering these industrious workers. An anole darts up the side of the garage and Madeleine wants to catch it, but fear freezes her feet where she stands. "Just be very brave," she urges me. "Just be very brave and go and catch it."
This is the foolishness of motherhood; I grab Net, the name she has given the pink net she uses to snag all sorts of wild creatures and inch toward the garage where the wasps buzz about their nest and the anole eyes me warily. The wasps stay put and I halfheartedly reach out with Net, trying not to hurt the lizard. It darts down the side of the house and into the ivy, long gone.
"I'm sorry," I tell Madeleine as another wasp buzzes outward and we move on to another side of the yard. "I almost had it."
When we talk about bees and wasps, it seems they're often interchangeable; our brains make the tenuous connections: flying thing with stinger, nest, hives, pollen, etc. In terms of stings, the two are quite different. The acidic venom of bees, apitoxin, causes pain in those they sting. Wasp venom is chemically different; it seeks to paralyze prey so it can be stored alive in the food chambers of their young. When a person is stung by a wasp, they can expect swelling, itching, and pain at the site of the sting. Home care includes washing the site of the sting thoroughly with soap and water, applying ice for 10 minutes, and giving the person stung an antihistamine to relieve symptoms. And then you wait for your body to take care of the problem the rest of the way. A lot of wasp sting management is to endure; it hurts, eventually it will hurt less. One of the most painful places to be stung is the face; the skin there is delicate and the nerve endings are just right there.
I don't know these things per se when I hear Madeleine screaming in the front yard. It's the kind of cry-scream that terrifies a mother. "NOOO," Madeleine is wailing as I bolt for the front door, my heart in my throat. "A bee," she is sobbing, red-faced and hysterical. She barely chokes the words out. "It stung me!" I can't see the sting, so I ask desperately, "WHERE?" and she screams out, tears soaking her face, "My eye! My eye! Right here!" She points to the inner corner of her right eyebrow.
All I know is that I need her to calm down and it's not happening. The intensity of her reaction surprises me because she's been stung by bees and wasps on a few other occasions and it's never been like this. I sit her on the kitchen counter and tilt her teary, red face up so I can get a look. I see two tiny dots where she indicated she was stung. "Did it sting you twice?" I ask and she shakes her head frantically. "Yes," she sobs, drawing the word out to three or four syllables.
I get some ice, wrap it in a cloth, and apply it to the sting. I pull her in close and stroke her hair back from her sweaty, overheated forehead. She is still sobbing, but more quietly now, and at last I can understand what she's telling me. "I didn't mean to hit it with my face," she says sadly. I can tell she's thinking about what she learned of bee stings; that the bee dies when it stings because the stinger is ripped from its body. "I didn't want it to die! It didn't have to do that! I wish I didn't find death in those bushes!"
And this is the thing she gets stuck on for a good while after the sting: whether the bee died after it stung her. "Was it a wasp or a bee?" I ask her, and she's not sure. "All I saw was the face right by my eye," she tells me, trembling. The tears start fresh. "I hope it didn't die! I hope it can still take care of its babies!" I grasp for something reassuring to say and land on this: "There was no stinger in your skin, Mad, so whatever stung you didn't die. It was probably one of those wasps that lives at the corner of our garage."
This is a stretch for her, to think in absences this way. Without a stinger, then the bee must be attached to this stinger that doesn't in fact exist in her skin. And so it must be alive. Either way. So she keeps asking, all the way up until she falls asleep that night. "Did it die?" And I keep telling her the same thing: "Without a stinger in your skin, it's probably still alive."
Now Madeleine won't go outside by herself any more and tries to employ company every single time she wants to go look for lizards and snakes. Whoever comes with her is the appointed lookout. "Just say 'wasp' or 'bee,'" she tells us, "and I will run as fast as I can."
More often than not, though, the self-proclaimed nature girl has turned indoors; she spends time constructing her own kind of nest in the industrious way a wasp would. She pulls the play kitchen out from the wall out an angle, creating her own little crevice. This is a single-celled nest constructed of cotton fibers woven into full blankets and pillows. She lines each cell with some of her favorite stuffed animals. I come home from work one day and she buzzes out, thrilled to show me her work. "I made a nest," she says proudly, pulling me into the playroom. "We can never get rid of it." I agree. "No way," I tell her. "This is your special place."
When I try to entice her to go outside later, she says no, focusing her attention on stickers and the lizard apartment she's built into a tall dollhouse.
Sometimes defense looks like offense, and that's what plays out most nights these days. Madeleine is triggered by something -- it could be anything -- and she spends the night defending her nest, as it is, wielding whatever tool she can. She morphs into an animal, growling and snarling, and she fastidiously ignores my attempts to calm her down. In fact, the more I try to get her to see reason, the more erratic she becomes. Laughing and giggling she bolts down the hall, away from my attempts to get her to settle. She stomps forcefully in her sister's direction until her sister is sobbing and she seems to delight in it, a wild gleam in her eyes as she circles the house, waiting for me to give chase, again and again. She runs toward the cat and wails in protest when I pull her back, she kicks her feet as I try to get her to sit, she proclaims, "I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS!" when I try to get her to talk. Again and again I am overcome by her fierceness, that pointed defiance that looks suspiciously like fear when she gets going. "We are not talking about this anymore," she says, drawing a line.
Eventually though, when the damage is done and I have lost my temper and Violet is left alone in her room and the cats are cowering under the bed somewhere, Madeleine has finally released all the venom and she curls into the time out chair, sobbing. "If you would just cuddle me," she says, and I do, of course I do. Finally she can talk, just a little. "This is just who I am," she says, a hurt swarming deep in her eyes. "This is how I react. I'm a bad kid."
I scrape the stinger and apply the ice and I tell her no, no you are not a bad kid. You are not. And we ride this one out together. We endure. It hurts; eventually it will hurt less. Or so I keep telling myself.
Days later, after the kids have gone to bed and the house is tidied, I pour through the pages of a book on dealing with kids on
the autism spectrum who have intensely explosive behavior. This book offers coping strategies and it is all very hopeful, but reading it is hard because it feels like a confirmation of something I previously have been able to deny. Asperger's or maybe Asperger's-lite, if such a
thing were to exit. Your kid is different from other kids, is
what I take away from it. Your kid is not "normal."
But yesterday we went outside and I noticed the wasp nest was gone, which
I pointed out to Madeleine. "I guess your dad took care of it," I told
her. And Madeleine stood there, appraising the now-empty corner that the
wasps had called home. "That's too bad," she said sadly, Net braced
over her shoulder. "I was really proud of those guys. They were working
She ran off to find lizards and I notched it in my head as something valuable to remember. To find beauty and grace in something that seems so invasive and destructive, to take pride in the hard work that goes into building a Whole Thing. In the wasps' case, a nest; in our case, a little girl learning how to be okay in the world.