Wasps Buzz In, Postal Carriers Bug Out

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Edward Miller stood serenely in front of his Bethesda home yesterday as a half-dozen menacing-looking black-and-yellow wasps flew around him.

"They are really not aggressive at all," said Miller as a big female landed on the back of his hand, not stinging the retired finance professor. "Apparently it is very difficult to get them angry."

Miller said he never intended to become a wasp whisperer. But in his two-week-long efforts to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to begin delivering mail again, he was willing to mix and mingle with the little swarm that has taken up residence in his yard at Ventnor and River roads.

"I grant that they are pretty fierce-looking," Miller said of the thumb-size creatures. "But what about delivering mail through blizzards and 'the dark of night' and all that? The post office takes a lot of pride in that and I was surprised to learn they can be scared off by what they thought was a bunch of bees."

Two weeks ago, according to Miller, his local post office stopped delivering his mail, without notifying him. It was only after several days that he realized he wasn't getting his usual sheaf of junk mail as well as some tax documents he was expecting. When he went to the Arlington Road post office to investigate, he was told by a supervisor that Miller's letter carrier was frightened by the great number of "bees" in his yard and refused to enter the property. She handed him a box of his accumulated mail and suggested that he hire an exterminator, Miller said.

When he asked why they hadn't notified him that his mail had been stopped, Miller said the supervisor told him she had gone to the house herself to gauge the danger but was too intimidated by the insects to even approach his door.

"She said, 'I knew you would come by here eventually,' " Miller said. "I'm a little teed off. This can be disruptive, especially when no one tells you. I am in the phone book."

Postal service spokeswoman Luvenia Hyson said officials are authorized to stop mail service to a house that may pose a hazard to the carrier -- dangerous dogs and icy steps are the most common complaints. But Hyson said the Arlington Road supervisor erred by not telling Miller about the problem.

"It's our policy to notify the customer when service is suspended, and I must apologize on behalf of the postal service that that was not done in this case," said Hyson. "They felt they couldn't get close enough to the house to leave a notice."

Miller, who moved to Bethesda with his wife and four children after their New Orleans home was flooded in Hurricane Katrina, said the insects appeared about a month ago and fly in groups of six to 10 in one corner of the yard. He has identified them not as bees, but cicada killer wasps, ground-nesting insects that are prevalent for several weeks in the summer. An entomologist who Miller contacted by e-mail assured him that the species was not aggressive and that its sting is not particularly painful. The stinger, possessed only by females, is used to paralyze the cicadas, which females then bury and use as live food for their hatching larvae.

"No one has been stung that I know of," Miller said. "My children are out here. The FedEx and UPS people have come with no problem."

Miller and his landlord emptied several cans of wasp spray in an attempt to reduce the number of wasps. When he returned to the post office Wednesday to pick up another box of mail, he dropped off some Internet literature he found that describes the mild habits of the cicada killers and told Ellis he'd killed a number of them.

"She said she would pass that on to the carrier," Miller said.

Yesterday afternoon, he opened his mailbox and for the first time in two weeks found the usual haul of Giant coupons, a credit card offer, a letter from his broker, some TurboTax software and an invitation to back-to-school night at Chevy Chase Elementary.

"Maybe my problems are solved," Miller said. "But maybe not. I've still got quite a few wasps in my yard."

In the meantime, Miller has become increasingly fascinated by his resident pests. He has watched them burrow into the sand, witnessed some impressive midair dogfights between males and seen one of the larger females fly with a cicada, twice her size, in her grasp.

"They really are interesting critters," Miller said. "They have a fascinating lifestyle. If they didn't scare the mailman, I wouldn't really mind them at all."

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