Friday, October 23, 2009

Calabrone! [Or: Toxic in Tuscany, Part II]

Ammazzacavalli, horse killers, that's what they call them in Tuscany. People not allergic have died from their stings. They are big. And they're just behind vipers on the venom index.

Being built mostly of brick, stone and clay tile, few Tuscan buildings actually burn, so the local fire department is even better known for something else: when you’ve got a calabrone nest in your chimney, that's who you call.

Because it’s steep, Sally calls our property "Stairmaster." Because our olives are near the top, my leg insists I have to wait till next year to make oil. Because of this summer's record heat, Giovanni’s trees yielded half what they ordinarily would, so I gave him our trees to harvest as well. He’ll get a full quota and maybe we’ll get a few liters of oil.

When he went up to our grove for a preliminary check, Giovanni saw them in the boca, the hollow bole of one tree. I knew exactly what boca he was referring to. On my personal pain index, right behind getting "messengered" and "tracked," is calabrone sting.

Once, while picking blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, I bumped face first into an American bald-faced hornet’s nest. I thought I'd been shotgunned in the face. That was nothing next to a single Italian hornet.

Just after buying the property a year ago, I was clearing suckers and weeds from the bases of the trees to prepare for harvest when something the size of a hummingbird slammed into the side of my head and latched onto my ear--the queen matron of the hive I hadn't noticed on the other side of the trunk. In a furious fuzzy frenzy, that honey-colored flying hypodermic repeatedly injected the side of my face with so much venom I couldn't see, I couldn't think. It was like the dentist had administered way too much novacaine, but with the opposite effect. Time became an amber I was stuck in. It seemed to take forever to get down the hill and drive to Villore to press an ice tray against my head.

My ear swelled like some kind of mushroom and rang for 2 days. The side of my head burned intensely for a week. The next weekend I sat 30 feet away from that nest until well past sundown on a half-moon night, waiting for the air traffic to die down. Then I hit that boca with a wasp fogger.

It didn’t work. The next day during harvest we gave the tree a wide berth.

Giovanni insists the answer is to throw gasoline into the hole. But only first thing in the morning on a cold day. I haven't mustered up the courage yet.

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