October 14th – The Festival of Tentacular Wasp Hibernation

There are some animals that people seem predisposed to hate: rats, spiders, snakes, flies. Wasps are a curious one, always defined in opposition to bees; they are so alike, yet thin and nasty, with no stores of sugar to share around. They create hard little polyps on trees to breed, reminding us of the parasites that dig beneath human skin. Their homes are made from sallow paper, crumbling bones to the full, fleshy wax of the beehive. You will never see a fluffy wasp. Still, there are some who prefer wasps, despite all these reasons. There are even some people who treat them as something far more than a mere insect.

Withall Henree had a very successful career as a genetic researcher before he was hit by a tram in 1978. Someone had spilled a large quantity of milk on the pavement, which he, late for a meeting, slipped up on and hurtled into the tramway. Thankfully he survived, but had suffered severe head trauma. Before the accident, Henree had been sequencing the genomes of various animals, and had recently completed that of the tentacular wasp, a subspecies of wasp primarily differentiated because of the strange tentacle-like forms it builds on the bottom of its paper nests. There are usually five or six to a nest, and they spiral downwards in a naturalistic manner; the effect is for the nest to appear something like a stranded jellyfish hanging from a tree or part of a building.

There was something very odd about the tentacular wasp: unlike a honey bee, for example, which has something in the region of 250 million base pairs in its genome, the wasp had well over 7 billion, far more than even a comparatively complex organism like a human. This number could well be even higher; Henree had not finished sequencing when he was hit by the tram, and indeed, he claimed to be mulling over the strangeness of such a large genome when he slipped on the milk. Base pairs are component parts of DNA; they are essentially pieces of code which, in combination, determine how an organism is formed and functions. They tell your body what colour eyes it should have, how tall you should grow, how quickly you use energy and various other factors, many of which are still being discovered today. It made no sense that an organism so simple would need so complex a DNA chain.

After the accident, however, it all seemed to make perfect sense to Henree. The wasps were simply doing something else, something that we couldn’t see. Whilst he sustained a good deal of damage to his prefrontal cortex, Henree seemed perfectly capable of working and carrying on as normal, despite the development of uncharacteristic mood swings, and a sudden adoration for the works of the harpsichordist Seman Varrik and goose eggs. He became obsessed with studying the hibernation states of tentacular wasp queens, the only member of the colony to overwinter in this manner. According to his logic, this is when the ‘something else’ they were doing would be most easily discerned, as there were no other activities covering it up.

All the peer reviews of the papers he wrote on the studies he performed were thrown out as ridiculous, unreplicable. The tiny twitches that he claimed he saw in the hibernating insects weren’t verified by anyone else, and the changes in gas composition were negligible. Most of all, Henree provided no theory or framework as to how the excess DNA of the tentacular wasp was supposed to interact with or create these barely-recordable changes. Eventually Henree lost his job by neglecting the studies he was supposed to be carrying out, instead focusing on the wasps. Yet he was not done yet; it was at this point that Henree realised that the ‘something’ being performed by the wasps was spiritual; they were connecting with some higher, divine being, the unknowable spark that created the earth and life and yet which seems so distant to us in our modern world. Perhaps the wasps understand it because they are more alike to it than we are?

The tentacular wasp is a very specific creature, only choosing to go into hibernation when the weather has been below ten degrees for at least five days. Similarly, it will awaken if the temperature rises above this level for a further five days, a mechanism designed to ensure that it outlasts the winter, when no food is available. Henree keeps a special chamber, wherein these flying insects are contained at a constant temperature, to ensure their survival in case of premature good weather. Today, he, and his fellow ‘researchers’ from the Enlightened Seers of the Great Wasp in the Sky (ESGWS), will gather wasps to them with a low electronically generated thrum, and trap them inside the chamber, ready to hibernate for another year. There they will be observed winterlong, their infinitesimal and possibly non-existent twitches interpreted as godly speech.

This is a big day for the ESGWS, and spirits will be high. Henree, now in his eighties, is like to give a tearful speech, after which a large bowl of rum punch will be shared out, served with blue cheese and crackers, the low thrum replaced with the music of Seman Varrik, who is considered something akin to a saint in this pseudo-religious organisation. Finally, before the night is out (at the early time of 10pm), the ‘researchers’ will all chant together a small section of the sequenced tentacular wasp genome, the thousand-or-so base pairs which are theorised by Henree to form the link between the wasps and their god, with whom they constantly commune. Perhaps, if they keep it up, they too will be blessed with the touch of its alien mind?

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Apportioning Blame
  • The Snake in the Grass Festival
  • Map Drawing Day