Attack of the bald-faced hornets!!

Several years ago I ended up in the hospital after being stung by a wasp – a yellowjacket, I think.  I was doing yardwork, weedwacking to be exact, when it happened.  I don’t even remember where I was stung because I had a full-body (systemic) reaction, with tingling, itching and hives all over.  I felt like I had billions of tiny worms crawling just beneath the surface of my skin and the sensation was maddening.

For all my life I have had exaggerated reactions to insect stings.  Large, local reactions – more intense itching and swelling than most people and the area remained swollen and visibly irritated for a longer time.  Annoying, but certainly not life-threatening – until that day I ended up in the hospital.  My systemic reaction quickly turned into anaphylaxis and I felt my airways closing as I was writhing and ripping at my itchy, mottled skin.  My inability to breathe panicked me and my oldest son, Shawn, rushed me to the hospital.  I was immediately put on oxygen, hooked up to an IV and treated with epinephrine (adrenaline).  Subsequent to that fearful experience, I began carrying a supply of antihistamines and a self-injectable epi-pen.  Though, I must admit, as the years passed I was not as vigilantly prepared.

Today was my first day back in the woods in nearly a month.  Vacation, rain and equipment problems kept me away.  It was a beautiful fall day – cool and crisp with blue skies.  I was dressed for the cold morning temperature, but quickly removed my winter vest, flannel shirt and turtleneck as the sun and physical labor warmed me up.  Today I worked on a plot for Mast Tree Release – another part of the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.  Mast is a botanical term meaning, “”fruit of forest trees like acorns and other nuts”.  The Mast Tree Release improves the food sources for wildlife.  I cut all the smaller growth trees and less desirable species to promote the release of acorns from fifteen large oak trees.  I was nearly finished when the tip of my saw slipped from cutting a small sapling and went into the dirt.  That was one of my first lessons from George – don’t cut dirt.  It was good advice, but accidents happen.  The dirt immediately dulled the teeth of my chain and it was no longer cutting properly.  Since George did not have his file with him, my cutting for the day ended.

I was walking out of the woods when I decided to explore a nearby stream.  I wanted to take some photos of the stream and came upon a fascinating bee’s nest at the water’s edge.  Ever conscious of my deadly bee sting allergy, I took a couple photos from a distance and approached it carefully.  I saw no bees – no activity of any kind.  The nest seemed dormant.  So I went closer.  I’m an enthusiastic student in nature’s classroom!!  Enthusiastically stupid, that is!

I wanted to examine the construction of this incredible nest, learn about the bees that build them and was eager to get home to do some research.  I held up my camera for a close-up shot, moved a tiny branch that was obstructing my view of the nest and just as I snapped the picture was attacked by a bald-faced hornet.  Instantly, I felt a sharp sting on my left hand.  Hence, the blurry movement in the photo below right.  Yes, I still snapped the picture otherwise my efforts would have been for naught!!  I don’t know how many hornets were attacking me – it may have just been one very persistent and ornery hornet.  But as I waved my hat around my head, ran and grabbed my things and tried to make tracks away from the nest, the hornet/hornets were still pursuing me.   I imagined being attacked by a whole swarm and suffering a multitude of venomous stings.  I hoped I could reach George on the landing before I fainted or went into anaphylactic shock and stopped breathing.  As I hurried toward the truck, I was hyper-conscious of my breathing passages, waiting for signs that they were closing up and relieved that the hornets were no longer chasing me.  I reached the landing and was just bracing myself for a severe allergic reaction to the sting on my hand. My fearful anticipation combined with the relief that I was no longer being attacked and had reached the truck, made me feel weak.  I took the antihistamines that I had with me.  My epi-pen expired in November, 2006 and I had been remiss about replacing it.  I carried it with me, but decided not to jab myself in the thigh with it.  George drove me home and waited for a while to see if I was going to need a ride to the hospital.  Fortunately, a local reaction was all I had and he returned to work.

I hated to miss time outside on such a glorious day, so once I was sure nothing more would happen, I mowed the lawn for an hour or so.  My swollen, puffy stump of a hand was kind of useless.  I quit mowing when all that was left was the area beneath the apple trees and two other places with known wasp nests.  I came inside and started my research.

I learned that the nest belonged to the bald-faced hornet.  Their name even sounds nasty!  On wikipedia it says, “Bald-faced hornets are protective of their nests and will sting repeatedly if the nest is physically disturbed.  They are more aggressive than… yellowjackets and members of the Vespa genus, and it is not considered safe to approach the nest for observation purposes.  The bald-faced hornet will aggressively attack with little provocation.”  Hmmmm… guess I should have done this research before approaching the nest!!  I will consider myself lucky – only one sting on the hand and no allergic reaction.  Phew!  The hornets that protect and guard the nest are the workers (infertile females) and at the peak of the nest there are 100 to 400 workers in a nest.  Imagine 100 to 400 hornets stinging repeatedly!! Oh my God!

Medical sites advise that the best treatment for insect allergies is avoiding the insect sting. That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?  And since hornets and wasps normally nest in bushes and trees, caution should be used to avoid employment requiring exposure to these environments.  I’m not prepared to give up my very cool job in the woods, so I guess I should renew my epi-pen prescription.

The biggest challenge for me is to rein in my rampant curiosity.  It’s not the first time my curiosity has caused me pain.  As a child, the day my training wheels were removed from my bicycle, I was curious to see if I could ride with no hands.  When my front tire hit a rock, I was catapulted over the handlebars landing with my face on the gravel road.  Near Christmas time a couple years later, I wanted to know what would happen if I inserted a pair of metal tweezers into the socket of a plugged-in electric candle.  After the explosion, I ran out of my bedroom and sat innocently (and in shock) on the couch.  The black soot on my face betrayed my insistence that nothing had happened to me.  Curiosity has also led me to many very happy discoveries.  Taking risks and venturing into the unknown have resulted in some of the richest experiences of my life.

“I could not, at any age, be content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on. Life was meant to be lived. Curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

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