This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.
Years ago I conducted songbird research at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve: summers of sweat, field camouflage, and pulsing masses of biting insects in this humid, temperate rainforest. There were only two of us on the field team, me and a botanist—a bright, friendly woman who described the vegetation at the same study plots where I recorded the vocalizing bird species.
Our goal was to document how songbird communities changed when a forest was selectively logged. We’d sit quietly under enormous pines at designated locations, up to a dozen of them in a morning. Occasionally we’d find bird nests but most of our detections were vocalizations: melodious song from birds unseen in the dense vegetation. I’d scribble down the exotic-sounding names of species like Siberian blue robin, Mugimaki flycatcher, and Asian stubtail.
Our work was based out of remote research cabins in the reserve, and we’d move from one location to the next every week or two when we’d completed all the necessary bird surveys. Late in the season we arrived at Perevalnii, an area of Korean pine forest near the Sikhote-Alin divide, and found a cabin of typical construction for the reserve.
It was a cozy, single room of hewn log walls with an aging iron woodstove and two single-person sleeping platforms separated by a narrow table. The ceiling was low to trap the heat in winter, and the walls were studded with nails to hang bags of rice, salt, and anything else edible—a precaution to keep food safe from the rodents who also called this cabin home. Two futon mattresses, brought inside when needed, hung over a support beam in the covered vestibule to air out between use and to keep rodents from nesting among their soft innards.
We fell into our routine when arriving at a new place. I piled some firewood near the woodstove then hung a mosquito net from the door frame, while the botanist took inventory of supplies left by past visitors.
I rolled out my air mattress onto one of the narrow sleeping platforms, laid my sleeping bag upon it, and got ready for bed. It was only dusk but this was the field season: we had a very early morning ahead of us. But I was not in bed for long.
As I closed my eyes, I could hear the botanist fiddling with her sleeping bag and unpacking some food. A short while later I heard her complain she’d forgotten her air mattress. The floorboards creaked as she stepped out to the vestibule to retrieve one of the stained reserve offerings hanging there.
When she came back I heard several things at once: a soft, startled cry, the sound of the futon mattress being dropped on the floor, and the rhythm of bare feet running rapidly away. This was followed by an urgent and intense buzzing one might expect to hear if a bee’s nest had been disturbed.
As it turned out, they weren’t bees. They were wasps.
I bolted upright at this sober understanding, clawed out of my sleeping bag, and stared at the mattress discarded on the floor. A few wasps, lethargic from the evening chill, were crawling across it. The wasps had evidently built their nest inside the mattress, which had been untouched for months outside under the cabin’s awning.
This was before the satellite phone days, and it was a full week before someone came to pick us up on the designated day. If I left this wasp nest where it was now, and ran like my mind was screaming for me to do, we’d have a devil of a time reclaiming the cabin from the wasps later. I had to act.
In a rare example of me thinking quickly and acting resolutely, I grabbed the two ends of the still-folded mattress from the floor, rushed outside, and heaved it like a shotput into the bushes that ringed the cabin clearing. The botanist stood a dozen meters away with large eyes and with hands over her mouth, confused by what had just happened and somewhat embarrassed to have abandoned me.
The wasps were even more baffled than we were. The mattress continued to hum softly as more of the insects crawled into view and took to the air, lazily circling their new surroundings in the fading evening light.
We worked out of Perevalnii for the week, hearing Siberian rubythroats, Tristram’s buntings, and pale-legged leaf warblers. The wasps never bothered us. But I must say, this event marked the first and last time I’ve ever touched a reserve mattress. In pursuit of singing birds, some nests are best left alone.
A Russian translation of this post is available.