That's gotta sting

By Phil Plait | November 13, 2008 8:53 am
Buddha in a wasp nest. Kinda.

In Rochester, Minnesota, the Buddha is laughing.

Or screaming in pain. Hard to say. That’s because local Buddhists are flocking to see a wasp nest shaped like, well, Buddha. As you can see, and as usual for these sorts of things, if you squint you can kinda sorta see it looks a little bit like Buddha. Maybe. I see the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, but that’s just me.

The article is pretty funny; they talked to an entomologist (good for them!) who described the wasp nest, and the way wasps make nests, and they even went so far as to say:

The Buddha-shaped formation could actually be made of four different nests formed over the last two to four years, said Robert Jeanne, an entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“If you want to read miracles into that, that’s your privilege, but I wouldn’t be inclined to do that,” he said.

But the author of the article makes a big point of how sacred bees are to Buddhists:

Beehives appear to have a special significance in Cambodian Buddhism: Honey collecting is a common activity in Cambodia, where Buddhist temples feature honeycomb-shaped towers.

There are other quotes about bees as well. And that’s all well and good, but, y’see, wasps aren’t bees. They’re two completely different things. Paper wasps, for example, don’t even make honey. So that whole part of the article is totally ridiculous. Even the picture caption calls it a beehive.

But my favorite part is the following quote from a monk named Moeun Thun:

The Buddha wasn’t trying to send a message with the nests, but the insects were trying to communicate a Buddhist message, Thun said.

“Bees can do this kind of miracle, so humans can also do miracles,” he said. “Everywhere in this world, we humans need to follow in the bees’ path to make peace and serenity.”

Well, given that these were not bees, but wasps, which are highly aggressive, I might disagree with the monk. Also, wasps paralyze their prey with their sting, and then plant them next to a previously-laid egg. When the larva hatches, its food is waiting for it in the form of the paralyzed — but not dead — prey, which then gets eaten alive.

If Thun is right, I’ll never look at a Buddha statue the same way again.

Tip o’ the benzocaine lotion tube cap to BABloggee John W. Weiss.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Debunking, Humor, Pareidolia

Comments (47)

Links to this Post

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  1. elgarak

    Am I the only one who thinks that looks like a Horta? Or maybe an Excalbian.

  2. Looks like a steaming pile of doo-doo to me…

  3. Todd W.

    As Phil points out, the message is from wasps, not bees. If it were bees, then I could see the message being “be productive and peaceful”. But since it’s wasps, I guess the message is “be productive, go out, and torture outsiders before feeding them to your young.”

    Frankly, the message to me is, break out the Raid and recaulk the window and door frames.

  4. I had a wasp nest in the barn shaped like a football. Now I have to chase the entire Seattle secondary out of my yard every morning.

  5. Chris A.

    Personally, I see Cartman: “Screw you guys, I’m going home…to lay parasitic eggs in a living host.” (Which, I can only assume, would be a grasshopper named Kenny.) ;)

  6. Eric A

    I would just like to say, as a resident of Rochester for the last 28 years, that this is usually a very sane town. Please do not think that this sort of thing is normal around here … we are a long way from the bible belt.

  7. Jim Roberts

    The wasps that built this nest are even further from being wasps that feed their young on paralysed prey than they are from being bees.

  8. Scott

    I’ve never understood why people think God or any higher power would choose to communicate in such a strange and hard to understand fashion.

  9. Ken Baker

    Looks like Winston Churchill to me.

  10. Mark T.

    This is a great example of ‘the public’ turning a word with a specific meaning into a generic term. Apparently most of the people involved in this article are unable (or unwilling) to make the effort to be even remotely precise. This is the sort of thing that leads to confusion when scientists or other specialists communicate to the public.

    Everyone remember ‘evolution is only a theory’?

  11. Nasikabatrachus

    This reminds me of that old buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, paralyze him with your sting and keep him in your house until your children are born so they can eat him.”

    I never really saw the merit of that one until now.

  12. Buddha?

    Naw. I think it looks like one of those prehistoric fertility statues.

  13. BaldApe

    Well, given that these were not bees, but wasps, which are highly aggressive, I might disagree with the monk.

    Well, some wasps anyway. (not paper wasps, at least not in North America)

    The bigger problem is in calling making a nest a “miracle,” even if it does sorta kinda look like the Buddha. (or what my dog leaves behind when she gets too much canned food)

  14. Mus

    Phil, you should check with an entomologist (or at least a biologist) before posting stuff like this. Paper wasps most certainly do not:

    “Also, wasps paralyze their prey with their sting, and then plant them next to a previously-laid egg. When the larva hatches, its food is waiting for it in the form of the paralyzed — but not dead — prey, which then gets eaten alive.”

    Paper wasps hunt small animals, kill them, and feed them to their already-hatched larvae in their nests.

  15. TheElkMechanic

    As BaldApe says, only some wasps are aggressive, mainly the eusocial ones like yellowjackets. Paper wasps are semisocial and will probably only sting if you go poking at their nest. And the ones you describe (providing paralyzed prey for their to-be-hatched babies) are generally solitary and are pretty much as nonagressive as you can get. (Unless you’re a crab spider or whatever their preferred prey is.)

    And not all bees make honey.

  16. LightPhoenix

    Hah, I was reading through the story, and all that was going through my mind was: wasps sure as heck aren’t bees, and anyone who has been stung by both knows this full well. I thought you were going to completely whiff on mentioning that Phil, but you came through!

  17. Eric A: As someone who grew up in Rochester (and whose parents still live there), I totally agree. The Mayo Clinic and IBM make it a pretty science-oriented town. And, hey, the reporter bothered to do some research and talk to an entomologist, which is more than I’ve seen the Daily Camera (Boulder) do in ages.

    Anyone else thinking of Futurama’s wasp/bee conundrum? (In the pilot, the old crew was eaten by space wasps, but in “The Sting” in the fourth season, we find out that it was giant honey bees. Apparently the writers discussed it with an entomologist (one of their fathers-in-law) trying to make it actually work scientifically before chucking accuracy and just writing it.)

  18. Oh look, he’s got a little guitar! Either that or a giant penis growing out of his armpit.

  19. Dan

    Like ccpetersen, I see something like the Willendorf Venus….

  20. José

    Oh Lordy, has the Virgin Mary ever let herself go.

  21. Ian

    Mus: Thanks for clearing that up. I was suffering from the same misconception as Phil (and for the record, I do know that what Phil wrote is at least true of tarantula hawks).

  22. jason

    Buddha? The hands are all wrong. And besides, once one becomes a Buddha one tends to stay enlightened and not involved in the affairs of the mundane. Maybe it’s a bodhisattva!

    I actually think it looks like a stack of New Years mochi left out in the sun too long.

  23. Chip

    The nest serves as a hose nozzle for passers-by the temple entrance. Buddhists and visitors entering the temple will be inclined to rush quickly in and those not entering will be inclined to rush quickly past.

  24. Clearly, the four nests represent the, uh, five heaps that make up the soul!

    Though, really, they should get some Raid on that stuff. “If you meet the Buddha on the road…” and all.

  25. Thanny

    No, paper wasps don’t do the feed-living-but-paralyzed-prey-to-the-young thing, but to say they are further from that than from bees is even more wrong than what Phil wrote. All wasps are more closely related to other wasps than to any bees.

    Furthermore, paper wasps certainly are aggressive when you get too close to their nest. By way of proof, I suffered four stings within four seconds a couple years back, when I opened a car door that the invasive species Polistes dominula had built a nest on (inside the gap between the door and the rear of the car). That nest was removed soon thereafter following a guilt-free genocide of its inhabitants, along with another one being built on my front door by another colony of the same species.

  26. Interesting story, however some readers (and possibly the author?) may fall into a couple of erroneous assumptions which I, as a non-theist and a Buddhist, feel qualified to correct.

    First, the Buddha is not a deity, so this does not really work as a parallel to Christian or Muslim pareidolia. Although deities do appear in the mythologies of some Buddhist cultures, and and though these cultures may be rife with superstitions, such deities and superstitions are products of the indigenous culture, not Buddhism, which is practically silent upon the subject of gods.

    Second, the statement that bees are sacred to Buddhists is just plain silly, roughly the equivalent of saying that because Italians are so fond of pasta, cavatini is sacred to Catholics.

    There’s a FSM joke in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.

  27. Chip

    Once carefully turned over an aluminum boat on the shore of a small lake in Northern California. Looking forward to the Einsteinian habit of simply floating around while thinking. The boat had not been sitting very long. All looked clear, no snakes, so I placed the oars and pulled the boat over to the water near a small peer and got in. Rowed about 3/4 away across the smooth lake when I noticed a paper wasp’s nest under the front brace at the bow. Yikes! Okeeey – haven’t been attacked yet, so I just rowed smoooothly, caaaaarefully, quieeeeetly back to the peer. (Preparing all the way to leap and remember my swimming skills.) But the wasps decided to remain in the nest. Whew.

  28. Jumblepudding

    I was born in Rochester, MN. Ups to my peeps.I thought only catholics saw sacred images in randomly formed objects, (ie:the nun bun and the virgin Mary appearing in a tortilla about once a week)I guess it’s a species-wide phenomenon. imagine a satire with atheists flocking to see a potato shaped like Sartre. That would be funny.

  29. Jack Mitcham

    As somebody who did pest control for 5 years, and is now strongly considering keeping honeybees this spring, nothing irks me more than confusing bees and wasps. It’s literally no different than confusing an ant and a bee.

    Also, Thanny:

    Most paper wasp species are not aggressive. They’re *defensive.* But, I lost track of the number of times I’ve walked right up to a paper wasp nest, within a few feet, and just murdered the entire occupying family.

    On the other hand, I’ve gotten stung by a yellow jacket simply for moving too quickly when he was foraging for food near me. Ugh, that brings back bad memories… once, while searching for subterranean termites, I dug into the soil with my screwdriver, ripping the top off of an underground yellow jacket nest. Ten stings.

    I got sidetracked. Oh well.

  30. JoeSmithCA

    I didn’t see Buddha at all, without reading the title or article, as a matter of fact I was thinking is this some weird abstract blob Phil is going to use as something to teach us about astronomy. Even after reading the article, it really took a leap of logic and holding my jade Buddha pendent to up to it to see the likeness. Actually it looks more like the my lucky chunk of ballistic ceramic that saved my life a few years ago that the pendant is glued to.

    As for the mistake for comparing wasps with bees. Well they are in the same Order Hymenoptera of the Class Insecta. So at the very least thats a weeeee bit more accurate than calling then insects :) Worse thing is that the image could have been on a spider web and then the article cites them as insects :)

    Phil Plait
    Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
    Subphylum: Vertebrata
    Class: Mammalia
    Subclass: Theria
    Order: Primates
    Suborder: Anthropoidea
    Family: Hominidae
    Genus: Homo
    Species: H. sapiens
    Subspecies: H. s. sapiens
    Subspecies falsus: Homo Sapiens Sapiens Plaitia

  31. TheElkMechanic

    Jack’s right, Thanny. You got stung because you disturbed their nest. That’s why I nuke the nests that P. dominulus build every spring across the tops of our shed doors, because I know those will get disturbed with kids going in and out to get swim stuff and someone could get stung. But they have nests behind our fake shutters and hanging from the soffits as well, and have for years, and pretty much ignore us. (Although they didn’t like me scrubbing the siding next to them a few years back.)

  32. My-Name-is-Kenneth

    Wasps are Buddhists? Who knew.

  33. Codswallop:

    First, the Buddha is not a deity, so this does not really work as a parallel to Christian or Muslim pareidolia.

    The Virgin Mary isn’t a deity, either, so I think that the parallels are actually pretty reasonable.

    My-Name-is-Kenneth:

    Seems like a contradiction to be a WASP and a Buddhist. (Sorry, someone was going to say it.)

  34. Looks more like “The Venus of Willendorf” to me.

  35. I see Darwin, losing any belief in a merciful and loving creator deity.

    “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” – Charles Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray

    The trick with bald-faced hornets – which are also not bees – is to wait until temperatures drop after sunset, then hit their nest with insecticide from a postion of concealment and easy retreat at least twenty feet away while fully armored, including goggles to protect the eyes, earmuffs over the ears and a mask over the nose and mouth. That’s the way I did it, anyway.

  36. stopgap

    Paper wasps are great to have around. They don’t bother you at all and other wasps of the aggressive variety might not build in your area if there already is an established nest.

  37. CJA

    (Just to clarify a few posts…)

    Buddhists don’t have much to do with the Bible or God

  38. Bob Magness

    I have lived in Cambodia now for over two years. My wife is Cambodian. Neither of us have ever heard of bees being considered sacred here. Sure, they like honey, but no more than anyone else.

  39. amphiox

    Those guys making the allusions confusing wasps and bees must not have watched that National Geographic special on the Japanese Giant Hornet.

    Granted, the social wasps don’t lay their eggs in caterpillars, either (at least not the ones I know about).

  40. Wayne Robinson

    Naw… it’s actually a dead ringer of Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars.

  41. Spiv

    alright, so I’m a buddhist. I guess I can see it, kind of chubby human form sitting with legs crossed and possibly making a hand gesture (there’s a long tradition in art history for what gestures mean what too, but I won’t bother to even look them up to try and interpret. Why? Because it’s still silly. )

    It’s cute, but not something to worship or try and gain wisdom from. Unfortunately buddhism is all honked up like every other religion out there, and some people just seem to have to have something to treat as a diety, and interject mysticism and blind lunacy even into a philosophy that specifically says “look, this stuff is just ideas from a smart guy, much of it seems to be good advice.”

  42. Brian Stamps

    …. I see a wasp nest compound that should be taken down immediately cause wasps suck, hiding in your shoes and what not!

  43. Tom T

    I think the significant message that can be derived from this wasps nest story is that one can find examples of the buddha in any element in life. By doing so -relating the buddha with any element in life- perhaps we can also remember to act more often with compassion and wisdom and the 6 perfections.

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