Insect Sentience And The Yellow Jacket Effect

Last Thursday, I was having a great day. I went to lunch with a dear friend, spent an hour perusing the sale racks at Kohl’s (didn’t buy a thing, though) and drove over to Zionsville to see my horse. When I pulled down the drive, I could see Wrangler’s hulking brown shape pawing furiously at the barn aisle. I sat and watched a minute to decide if he was trying to stir up a few crumbs of grain or if something more sinister was afoot. Anyone who has been around horses as long as I have knows relentless pawing tends to be the precursor to dreaded horse colic. Colic, in layman’s terms, is a bellyache. For a horse it could mean trapped gas, an impaction or worst case, a twisted gut. He didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, so I grabbed his halter and lead rope and took him for a walk. I was hoping the activity of movement coupled with the anxiety of being separated from his friends would encourage him to “pass” whatever was ailing him. The other three horses were going bonkers, running back and forth along the fence line so I walked Wrangler back toward the barn. No luck in getting him to expel the cause of his discomfort, though.

As we rounded a corner heading to a small pasture, he took a bad step and went into a hole. I glanced at his left rear foot to be sure he was OK when all of a sudden he began to kick, rear and bolt. He ran over the top of me, knocked me down, all the while kicking up under his belly. I was on the ground hanging on for dear life when I discovered the reason why my gentle giant turned into a 1,200-pound raging wrecking ball. Yellow jackets! I saw my life flash before my eyes. Not really, but I did see myself chasing a horse running down Hunt Club Road covered in a cloud of yellow jackets. I managed to pull up without the aid of something to hold onto (adrenaline works wonders for moving the body), opened the gate and shoved him back into the enclosure. Now he was contained. He zipped through the barn a couple of times, trying to outrun those spawns of the Devil. I hurried over to the water spigot and started spraying myself with the hose while those vicious little demons stung and stung. Yellow Jackets, unlike honey bees, do not die after stinging. They can live to sting another day. When a honey bee stings you, it leaves the stinger embedded in your flesh and a gaping hole in its abdomen. So, basically , a honey bee commits hari kari on itself. And as much as I dislike injuring any living thing, I knew the yellow jackets in this nest had to die for the safety of the horses and humans.

I often question why we kill sentient beings when they are only doing what is natural to them. Sentience is defined as something that has the “capacity to experience sensation or feeling” and there’s much disagreement over whether or not insects can be considered sentient. In an article published by The Independent out of the UK, the author states “Insects have a form of consciousness and can display egocentric behavior as evidenced by brain scans.” I once carried a tomato hornworm down over the hill after I discovered him decimating my tomato plants. I didn’t get so much as a thanks. However, there was a time when I observed what I can only describe as gratitude from a pair of dragonflies.

A few years ago, when we still lived in Broad Ripple, I had driven home from work and pulled into the parking space right outside of our condo. As I approached the front porch, I noticed a large spider web holding two dragonflies, both of them wrapped like mummies. One was alive and vibrating; the other was still. I put down my purse and binder and grabbed the pooper-scooper I used to clean up after my dogs. It was a perfect tool for cutting through the web with its long handle, tiny bucket and jagged teeth. I opened it carefully and made sure the dragonfly was in the bucket and pulled it away from the web. I removed the remainder of the sticky silk with my fingers. Voila, he is free! Good deed for the day, I thought. Then as I turned to go in the house, I notice the smallest of movements coming from the other dragonfly. The one I assumed dead was wiggling now. I repeated the same process and it, too, flew away. Pleased that I had saved two innocent creatures from death, I started back to the door. But I am stopped dead in my tracks, for at my feet, sat the two dragonflies, side by side. Then in unison, they rose up and flew away together. It was as if they were saying thank you. I still recall the chill that went through me and the connection I made with what we humans consider the lesser of God’s sentient beings.

I went back to the barn yesterday. My friend Dawn had taken care of the yellow jacket infestation. No “airport activity” was noted around the entrance to the nest, so I leaned over to look inside. The carnage was extensive. Even though I had welts on me the size of a fist, I felt sorry for these little creatures that were only protecting what was theirs. I guess my horse, the yellow jackets and I had a double dose of sentience the other day. Wrangler and I had the short-term effects of an unpleasant sensation. The yellow jackets, because of their brutality, gave up their right to live in harmony. As defined by the Butterfly Effect, (a property of chaotic systems by which small changes in initial conditions can lead to large-scale and unpredictable variation in the future state of the system), the yellow jackets began their own chaotic charge which ended in their demise. Maybe there is a lesson is in this for all of us to learn. As for me, I am still trying to sort it out.

Gwynn Wills is a former speech therapist, certified Amherst Writers and Artists workshop Affiliate and Leader and founder of The Calliope Writers Group. After growing up in Crawfordsville, her and her husband returned several years ago.