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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Wrath of the wasps

by Mike Masterson | August 7, 2021 at 3:12 a.m.

She certainly didn't set out to be swarmed by a squadron of wasps. As with most such attacks, it happened from out of the blue.

In an instant, Jeanetta was running in terror from the toxic insects who remained relentless in their strafing until she'd suffered at least 10 stings to both legs.

The thing about angry wasps, unlike bees, is they can continue to inflict injury repeatedly since they don't lose their stingers as they attack.

It's that time of the year when bees, yellowjackets, hornets and other wasps can appear virtually anywhere, and remain on alert to defend their larval offspring at any cost, no matter how formidable the perceived threat.

Unfortunately, all too often, the victims are humans who blunder into their territory to disrupt their lives.

Those who have felt their wrath know how painful and otherwise discomforting their venom can be as it quickly surges through the bloodstream to cause considerable swelling that can last for days.

For those like Jeanetta who have had previous severe allergic reactions to these attacks, the stings (even just one) can trigger anaphylaxis and worse, up to and including death. In her case, several years back her breathing became difficult and blood poisoning set in from the point of the sting to climb up her arm.

Her latest experience occurred when she accidentally knocked over the two-foot-high metal lawn statue inside of which wasps had created their hidden summer nest. Their home certainly didn't stay hidden for long as they emerged to make the culprit pay.

While she searched the medicine cabinet frantically for something to ease the the pain, I coated the lawn ornament with a can of wasp spray that said I could stand back 27 feet, which I was eager to do.

When my onslaught in the one-sided battle wound down after I'd drained the can, the hollow ornament lay blanketed in white foam. A dozen or more wasps wriggled in the glistening pool that continued oozing for a minute, which gave me a fleeting satisfaction that her injuries had been avenged. No wasp could possibly survive such carpet bombing. Or could it?

Two days later, she was back outside and noticed a few still buzzing around the statue. So back to my fresh can to end those threats. But how could that be?

Jeanetta looked inside the statue to discover the apple-sized nest that contained larvae still wriggling inside.

While I'd finished off most of the hive with my spraying, I hadn't touched the ones that had been away doing their waspy thing at the time or their sheltered larvae, which explained the survivors.

While most of her stings were single occurrences, there was one critter she had trouble brushing from her ankle as it injected her several times. These contributors to God's master plan can be vicious by nature.

Over the ensuing two days, both of Jeanetta's lower legs and ankles had swollen considerably. It wasn't until the third day that they returned to near-normal size. That's also when the unbearable itching began. Thankfully, she hadn't experienced a more severe allergic reaction like the incident from years earlier.

Just over a week earlier, she'd been planting flowers in a friend's yard when she noticed a swarm of yellowjackets coming and going from a hole in the grass. She'd wisely backed away until an exterminator could arrive and pump no less than 15 gallons of wasp killer into the opening.

Yet even at that, several days afterwards those wasps were back circling the hole. The exterminator was called for a second spraying. I suspect that had been a similar scenario to the one I'd face shortly afterwards, having to repeatedly spray until I finally removed the nest containing the larvae.

Wasps are far wiser than we give them credit for being. They've been known to chase people for long distances and even wait several minutes above the water line to resume their attacks when someone dives into a stream or lake to escape. The mean-spirited insects seem to know we soon must come up for air.

I've read that more than 1,100 U.S. residents reportedly died from wasp and bee stings between 2000 and 2017 for an average of 62 deaths annually, 80 percent of those being men.

Despite their obvious downside, wasps also are reported to be ecologically beneficial organisms for humanity since, as with bees, they pollinate flowers and food crops.

Moreover, they help regulate populations of crop pests such as caterpillars. However, they also, in the case of large yellowjackets and hornets, can specialize in attacking the beneficial honey bees and their hives.

My purpose behind today's column is to remind valued readers to be mindful and take particular care when working outside, or anywhere these critters unexpectedly build their hives.

Skip the sweet-scented perfumes, wearing loud colors and sipping from soft-drink cans left outside since wasps and bees often crawl inside for their own sip of sugar. A social media post the other day pictured a young man who'd been stung by a wasp on his upper lip. Within minutes the injury had swollen to the size of a small hen's egg.

As Jeanetta can well attest, it takes only an unintentional bump or disruption to their world to bring down a swarm of agonizing wrath.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Wrath of the wasps

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