Viewing the Field
By Milo Yield
From the feedback I’ve gotten the past two weeks, some readers are enjoying my current column theme — describing how I as a kid entertained myself back in the 1940s, ’50, and ‘60s.
Last week I described how I used insects in playful diversions. After I got through writing that column, other “insect memories” emerged from a dark recess of my mind. The first recollection involved playing with carpenter ants.
Most folks probably recall that carpenter ants were big black ants — about 1/2-inch long with huge mandibles — that foraged up and down big shady tree trunks. They were quite quick and nimble — which provided a challenge to a kid like me. And, they’d take a bite of finger if you gave them a chance.
First, I wondered if carpenter ants would be able to escape the “funnel trap” that ant lions — commonly called “doodlebugs” — build in fine dust or sand.
For a refresher to those who don’t know what an ant lion is, here’s what wikipedia says: “The antlions are a group of about 2,000 species of insect in the order Neuroptera, known for the fiercely predatory habits of their larvae, which in many species dig pits to trap passing ants or other prey.”
To this day, I have hundreds of doodlebug sand traps of all sizes up to 2-inches across in the dust of my old sheds at Damphewmore Acres. I can tell you from experience that doodlebugs can still enthrall little kids.
But, back to my childhood story. I would capture a big carpenter ant on a tree trunk and drop it into an antlion sand trap. The carpenter ants couldn’t escape from a big doodlebug, but they could from small ones. I entertained myself for hours with this activity.
But, then I decided to challenge myself and see if I could build an earthen pit that carpenter ants could not escape from. For this challenge, I appropriated a big spoon from Mom’s silverware drawer. Naturally, this was without her knowledge or permission.
Then I found a cool spot in the shade where the soil wuz moist, but not muddy. If it wuz dry everywhere, I would fetch water and make my own moist soil. Then I would carefully use Mom’s tablespoon to dig a pit into the soil about 2-3 inches deep and see if carpenter ants could escape from my pit.
They could until I perfected the pit by shaping it not like a funnel, but exactly like a jug or bottle — with a small hole in the top and sharply crafted “shoulders.” With a trap like that, most carpenter ants could climb up the sides, but would fall back into the trap when when they tried to navigate the sloping shoulders.
You’d be surprised how much time a kid like me could kill with this activity.
Another insect-related “fun” activity for me and my pals were trying to swat “wood bees” — officially “carpenter bees” — with wooden slats. Wood bees are destructive of wooden buildings because they drill holes into the rafters in which they lay eggs and raise their young.
Neighborhood boys and I would entertain ourselves swatting wood bees out of the air — not an easy task with a thin and narrow slat. We thought we were in a danger zone of being stung, but I found out as an adult that males have no stingers and females will sting you only if you directly handle them. However, as a kid, “sting danger” added an exciting element to the game.
I recall that our dads encouraged this play activity because it helped reduce building damage. To this day, I fight wood bees in my sheds at Damphewmore Acres, but I use a stringed racquetball racquet instead of a wooden slat.
Still another insect related play activity was destroying hornet paper nests in the woods. Now, this play definitely had a real danger because if you goofed up, you could get numerous painful hornet stings.
We kids pursued this activity while riding our horses in the woods. We carried 22-rifles in our saddle scabbards so we could blaze away at anything we pleased. It probably wuzn’t safe. It certainly wuzn’t ethical. But, we didn’t care.
When we discovered a paper hornet’s nest, we would survey the situation and try to find a safe angle of attack. If it wuz a high nest, our goal wuz to sever the thin “neck” of the nest that attached it to the limb with a well-placed 22-caliber bullet — an almost impossible task. When that failed, we simply fired rounds into the nest to rile up the hornets, then we fled as fast as our horses could take us. Eventually, one friend brought a single-shot shotgun for the task. Still on occasion, we’d get stung.
If the hornet nest wuz hanging low enough to hit with a club, then we were provided a much more exciting and dangerous course of action. One of us would thunder under the nest on horseback and use a club to knock the nest out of the tree. We could be assured that a cloud of angry hornets would emerge from the destroyed nest and try to exact stinging revenge of us perpetrators.
Of course, if a hornet stung your horse with you astride it, then the danger wuz, in fact, real. You can imagine how a horse reacts to a hornet sting. You’d better have a good grip on the saddle horn. That happened once in a while.
Words of wisdom for the week: “If you’re sitting by yourself, masked up, in a public place and someone invades your ‘safe pandemic social distance,’ just stare seriously straight ahead and whisper loudly out of the corner of your mouth, ‘Did you bring the money?’” You’ll quickly be safe distanced again.
Have a good ‘un.