Late summer seems to an especially active period for stinging insect predators such as bald-faced hornets, or paper wasps, and yellowjackets, so pay attention as the early fall field seasons get under way.
I say this because I recently gained new respect for these stingers. I have been stung a total of four times this summer by paper wasps, and each time the sting upped the ante in terms of my system’s reaction to it.
I never even noticed the early wasp nest, a small gray papery wad maybe the size of a golf ball, hang low in a silver maple. I was mowing down in the creek bottom and bumped a branch on a silver maple, maybe two feet off the ground, and promptly got stung. Then I noticed the little nest almost hidden in the leaves. I was more annoyed than harmed, though the sting was briefly locally painful.
A couple of weeks later I was mowing the same area, had forgotten about the nest, which was still small, bumped it, got stung again. The first time the sting hardly raised a welt. This time it raised a welt maybe the size of a pea and it itched about a day. The sting hurt briefly, but again the pain subsided quickly enough and I went on mowing.
By late summer, the nest had grown to nearly cantaloupe size. I could hardly miss it. But wasp activity had increased with nest size and even trying to avoid the nest I got whacked on the back of my right calf. I iced down the sting a bit and that seemed to help the swelling, which this time grew to the diameter of a silver dollar; it itched like the dickens for several days, enough that it even woke me up at night.
All of which should have taught me a lesson to be more attentive. I never have been panicky around yellowjackets and wasps, simply have tried to avoid bothering them, and only occasionally have been stung with little serious harm. I appreciate the good they do, preying on pestiferous smaller insects and have generally taken a live and let live approach to their presence.
On one occasion some years ago I accidentally blew up part of a yellowjacket nest under the siding of the house while power washing some house siding, and I absorbed three stings around my beltline when the aroused ‘jackets swarmed around me as I moved away. From that episode I absorbed three huge white nasty welts. But I got over it, never suffered a serious reaction other than a local welts and swelling, and used ice and a dose or two of Benadryl tablets or some topical salve for the itching.
All that casual attitude ended the fourth time the paper wasps stung me this summer. Two nights beforehand, a raccoon (I suspect) had torn off the bottom third of the low-hanging nest and the insects apparently were on edge. I was in a hurry from the herb garden, where I had clipped some chives to take along for some food fixings for a salmon fishing trip, and blundered into the nest. A swarm of enraged wasps boiled out of the bottom of their damaged dwelling.
I only was stung once before getting out of range, on the outside of my right hand. But within 10 minutes my right hand was swollen thickly, and so was my right forearm.
The right side of my lower lip went slightly numb and I started to itch ferociously in the groin, beltline, and armpits. I peeled off my shirt and saw that I was broken out in impressive masses of itching hives.
This event now had my complete attention. Obviously I had built up an extreme sensitivity to wasp venom by the repeated sting episodes. So I consciously monitored my breathing, heart rate, and checked my vital signs to weigh whether I might be heading into anaphylactic shock, a serious condition, possibly life threatening – all OK. No swelling of the tongue (you can choke).
I promptly began dosing with maximum allowable doses of Bendadryl, and within an hour my itching started to subside, along with the numbness to the lip. But it took 36 hours for the swelling in the forearms and hand to completely subside. And all along I was very attentive to making sure my condition didn’t head south.
But when it was over, I called my doctor, who in turn prescribed an EpiPen for me to carry in case another sting takes the reaction to the next, potentially fatal stage. It can be that serious. The doctor also advised to supply the medicine chest with some liquid Benadryl, which acts more quickly, to go along with Benadryl tablets.
I also called my buddy Russell Lamp, an entomologist who specializes in removing bald-faced hornet (paper wasp) and yellowjacket nests to collect the insects for use in the pharmaceutical industry in making sting antivenins. His advice was that I had reached a me-or-them standoff with the wasp nest.
It was time to gear up protectively, head to toe, in the late evening when the nest was quiet and the insects cooped up for the night, then spray down the nest with wasp insecticide. “Soak it good, back off, and hit again the next night,” Lamp said. Copy that.
So, an object lesson – from someone who should have known better and who became too casual in his approach to avoiding stinging insects. Me. Be advised.