10 November 2010

Dragonflies vs. Wasps

Is it my imagination, or are we experiencing a particularly long and tempestuous dragonfly season? I associate dragonflies with the heat of summer, clouds of colorful buzzing insects as harbingers of thunderstorms. Yet this year we seem to have had more clouds of dragonflies than cloudbursts. Although now, deep into autumn, there are no longer thousands swooping and diving outside my window (as in the photo, taken a couple weeks ago), any time I open my window screens, one or two manage to dash inside and buzz furiously on the ceiling.

Wasps, too, have been invading my room for the past few days. Even with windows and doors shut tight, I'll enter to find four or five orange wasps tapping at the glass, trying to find a way out. How did they get in? I spent hours waiting in ambush before I discovered a machine-tooled hole in one of the aluminum window frames which they were obviously misinterpreting as the entrance to a nest, crawling through, and then finding themselves, like Alice, not in a world they knew, but the bizarre Wonderland of my home studio.

When I discover wasps or dragonflies trapped inside, I try to shoo them out. I slide open a window and try to help them to discover their escape route. These species have remarkably different tactics. A wasp will explore every corner of the window pane. When coming upon the opaque aluminum frame, the wasp will return to the glass to search some more. Left on its own, it might make two or three complete explorations of the windowpane before concluding the futility of getting through it. It will then fly around to look for another see-through opening. Eventually it finds the open window.

Sometimes I'll nudge it along, with a well-extended magazine, toward the opening. The wasp will resist, trying to remain on the transparent pane, but eventually give in and either follow my guidance or fly to another window. In either case, I see intelligence at work, methodically searching the glass for an escape route and, only after thorough examination, looking elsewhere. There is no hint of panic, no indication of fear. Even my nudging doesn't provoke a defense response. Wasps, to me, are frightening to look at, but worthy of respect.

Dragonflies, on the other hand, thrash around the room, buzzing noisily against ceiling panels, book cases and windows. If they don't immediately manage an escape through a transparent pane, they scamper off somewhere else, their wings beating furiously. A nudge with the extended magazine sends them into a terrified dither. There is no intelligence at work here. Their noise and frantic manner make me more nervous than venemous wasps.

Yet when it comes down to it, which one would I willingly kill? In the rare case of a stubborn or belligerent wasp, unwilling to follow instinct or instruction toward the open window, I've been known to reluctantly electrocute them with my battery-powered insect zapper. Yet I would never contemplate that with a moronic, irritating dragonfly. Why is that?

These dragonflies are a stunning day-glo electric blue. Their long, slender torsos and translucent biplane wings make them particularly elegant insects. To harm one would be like attacking a beautiful, innocent child, whereas to attack a sinister-looking hunchbacked wasp is akin to battling a shrewd movie villain. Yet trapped dragonflies are actually louder, more nerve-wracking and more likely to bump into you than trapped wasps. Why don't I hate the more annoying insect? I doubt that I'm alone in this gut response. Are we, on an instinctual, animal level, more willing to forgive beauty than to forgive intelligence?

On a human social level, we let pretty (and often genuinely stupid) female starlets get away with felonies with little more than a slapped wrist, while a young British university student I know, who has very dark skin (which, in the context of everyday Hong Kong racism, is not considered beautiful), was beaten by police and spent two weeks in prison for the crime of accidentally touching a woman behind him when he slipped on a rain-slickened steep sidewalk.

Only beauty prevails in this world. I resolve, in my own small way, to fight against that. From now on, I will be more tolerant toward wasps and lessen my regard for dragonflies.


  1. I hope the wasps didn't betray your newfound trust, Mr. Feign! I just discovered you, your work, and your blog at random, and I'm enjoying all three very much. I'm a simple Texan who only dreams of visiting Hong Kong someday, and your window into village life is like a lifeline to my imagination. I hope you and your family are well, and I hope you'll consider resuming the Toilet Bar someday!

  2. Sigh. I wish we still lived in a world where "only beauty prevails". But alas, each trip to a river, any walk in the woods, and there's rubbish everywhere... Landscapers don't understand growth patterns, and the diversity of human beauty is often shamed.