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A few summers ago, my partner and I decided to do some container gardening. This involved filling a watering can at the faucet in the backyard to water the plants every day. One day, as the summer was really starting to heat up, I noticed that a ground wasp of some sort was loitering on the faucet.
I have always been afraid of wasps. Bees? Love ‘em. Spiders? They’re my friends. Cockroaches? Fascinating little buggers. But wasps? At the time, I didn’t understand why they existed and I was really scared of them.
I could feel myself starting to panic: Oh no! How am I going to get water now? Am I already too close? Is the wasp going to sting me?
But then, my behavior brain started to kick in. I recognized my panic and started to intentionally slow my breathing. I reminded myself what I already know about behavior in all species: All behavior has function. What is the wasp’s body language telling me? What need is the wasp trying to meet?
I stood still and focused on just observing the wasp’s behavior. The wasp seemed completely oblivious of me. I’m no wasp body language expert, but in general, the wasp looked fairly relaxed: their movements were slow and deliberate, the abdomen wasn’t lifted, and the wings were in a resting position. The longer I observed the wasp, the more clear their motivation became to me: they were trying to get water from the faucet.
Of course! This makes sense! The temperature was in the triple digits, and the closest body of water was the Great Salt Lake about 10 miles away. Finding water in this part of the world must be quite a challenge for little critters like wasps. The longer I watched this wasp trying, in vain, to drink water from the faucet, the more I could feel my fear being replaced by empathy.
I went inside the house, poured some water into a cup, then came back outside. I grabbed one of the extra terra cotta plant pot saucers lying around on our porch and poured the water into the saucer. Then I slowly, carefully approached the wasp and held the water-filled saucer a few inches away from the faucet.
Sure enough, the wasp flew from the faucet to the edge of the saucer and started drinking! I tentatively placed the saucer on the ground a few feet away from the faucet, then filled my watering can with water and went about the business of watering my plants.
The next day, when I went out to water the plants, a wasp was at the faucet again. I assumed it was the same wasp from the day before, and this time I knew exactly what to do. I filled the saucer with water again, gently placed it on the ground a few feet away, and went about my business as usual.
As the days went by, I noticed that the wasp seemed to be learning our routine. They started flying to the saucer before I got all the way up to the faucet, and then flying farther distances to get to the saucer. At some point, I decided to try just taking the glass of water directly to the saucer sitting on the ground where I normally left it to see if the wasp would fly directly to it. Sure enough, the wasp did.
Then, one day, the wasp saw me coming and flew straight to the saucer. I hadn’t even put water in it yet! I approached the saucer, poured the water in, and the wasp immediately started drinking. That became our routine for the rest of the summer: I’d bring water out to the saucer, the wasp would fly from the faucet to the saucer to drink water, and I could use the faucet without having to worry about getting into conflict with the wasp.
Moreover, I felt really happy that I had been able to overcome my fear of the wasp by applying what I know about behavior to a species that I’ve always been afraid of. What I had initially viewed as a dangerous foe had since become my little wasp friend–a creature who had needs and for whom I was able to meet those needs. I realized that I had even started to look forward to seeing my wasp friend in what had become our daily ritual.
Then I wondered: does the wasp recognize me? Or is the wasp just making a connection between human figure approaches = water appears in saucer?
Several months later, I stumbled across an article explaining that both bees and wasps can recognize human faces. I thought back to my little ground wasp and felt some sense of satisfaction that my wasp friend did, in fact, recognize me. There’s something nice about being The Water Human as opposed to just being a faceless water harbinger.
The whole experience was really special to me because it reminded me of some general principles that I already knew but got to experience in a whole new way:
- Overcoming fear starts with being aware of our fear response and processing it mindfully.
- Knowledge, observation, and understanding dissipate fear and can allow us to replace fear with empathy.
- If an animal is alive, they can learn.
- We, as a species, tend to consistently underestimate the capabilities of non-humans, and research continues to prove us wrong.
- Meeting needs, establishing communication, and building trust is the best way to prevent conflict, even with animals that are typically thought of as mindless violence machines. 🙂
- That said, I feel it’s important to give this disclaimer because I can anticipate what I said above being taken to a dangerous extreme: in general, it’s not a good idea to try to make friends with wildlife–both for their safety and for ours. I wouldn’t advocate going around befriending every wasp you see, much less lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). I just so happened to have the fortunate opportunity to teach this wasp how to move away from my faucet because interacting with this particular animal was unavoidable. But please don’t try giving water bowls to your local bobcats because you read this article! Safety, as always, for both humans and non-humans, comes first.