A Waspish Swansong

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Don’t you just hate it when you go around telling people that something won’t happen and then, as if by magic, you are proven completely wrong in such an obvious fashion that you can’t even pretend that’s what you meant in the first place? Or is that just me? Whatever, I have been dutifully regurgitating an article that I heard on the radio news last year about wasps being so utterly soaked through by the rain and then starved by the attendant lack of fruit in 2012 that their numbers could not possibly recover in time for them to do any commercial damage to fruit growers for years to come, possibly forever. If not longer. You will imagine my surprise and delight when we had the temerity to attempt an al fresco dining session last weekend and were assaulted by an armada of the unpleasant little blighters.

And that wasps have the most amazing ability to turn what should be a mildly boozy and wickedly enjoyable afternoon in the (still) sun drenched Devonian countryside into a stressful retreat into a hermetically sealed room was not the worst of it. The wasps like to make a mess of our grapes. If you weren’t with us in 2011 (or have somehow managed to escape the relentless whining about them since then) most of the German vines, which were very well stocked at the time, had pretty much all of their grapes nicked by a legion of wasps. This was particularly shocking for us as things had been going extremely smoothly until that point, with nary a wasp to be seen. What’s more, our usual insecticide (forefinger and thumb) promised to be painful and potentially lethal, so we were without chemicals to convince them that they might want to be elsewhere. Specifically motionless beneath the vines.

By the time that I was in possession of some insecticide, most of the grapes were already gone, but disposing of the few remaining wasps was still intensely satisfying. We use insecticide extremely sparingly here because it also knocks over the good guys (ladybirds, lacewings, solider beetles et al), so we were keen to use something other than chemicals again this year. We have used jam jars with holes banged in the lids, filled with golden syrup and water before with some success, but not nearly enough to prevent the wasps doing fairly major damage to the grapes.

The solution came to us in the pub. From where I expect that most ideas worth their salt come. Gluttons for punishment, we were with some friends sat outside a pub attempting to eat. And sure enough, the moment that we sat down, the wasps came to join us and generally stir things up a little, which was all very depressing. Then someone noticed that one of our number had absent mindedly bought another pint of cider before finishing the first and that her unattended cider now had a wasp attempting doggy paddle in it. My attention was immediately taken by this as we had made a new design of trap this year and filled it with orange pop, which was going well, but nowhere near as well as this (at this point a third wasp took a swan dive into her lonely Bulmers).

We left the pub in extremely high spirits, mostly because we had turned the tables on the wasps and were at that point looking forward to their visits as they unerringly ended with a tumble into the cider and a victorious cheer from our previously harassed troupe. And what did we discover when we returned from the pub with our house guests? More exciting evidence: amongst the wreckage from the previous evening’s festivities there was a very nearly empty bottle of cider with its own collection of half drunk wasps stumbling around the bottom. Had we chanced upon an extremely effective and humane way to prevent the wasps from damaging the grapes and send them on their way with the mother of all waspish swansongs? Yes. Now all that I need to do is pluck up the courage to go to the cheapest supermarket that I can find for a quantity of discount cider.

Away from the wasps, the vines are really starting to move into their final stage of the season and we are hopeful to start picking the first of them at the end of the month. Our German vines have changed colour from green to a sort of translucent yellow colour (which is called veraison and usually happens about six weeks before picking) and the most advanced are just at about the sweetness that one might expect from a table grape. Which is why we are paying attention to the wasps, although they still won’t actively start chewing through the skins for a couple of weeks yet.

The main part of our crop has, at the time of writing, just started to move into the first stage of this process. The Chardonnay, which appears to have suffered the most from the ravages of a soggy 2012 (unlike the wasps, the effects on these vines are as advertised), has a smallish amount of fruit that is almost entirely through veraison and is looking great. The Pinot Noir – which will ultimately turn red/black – is just about to change colour and there is rather more of it. This is interesting as the Pinot Noir is usually further along than the Chardonnay, but it appears to be about a week behind this year. It seems likely that this is due to the Chardonnay being able to concentrate its efforts on a smaller amount of fruit. Whatever the case, it’s going to be really interesting to see what effect this potentially riper fruit has on each of the two bottles of wine we are going to be able to make from it.

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