There’s plenty to like about this time of year. Football season has arrived, the first hunting seasons are opening, and we’re starting to experience some of those crisp, cool nights that are made for sitting around a campfire.
It’s almost perfect, right? Especially when a cold front blows through and creates a few days of bright blue skies with low humidity?
Yeah, maybe. Except yellow jackets.
God only knows why He created yellow jackets. Unlike bees, they do not pollinate. Like other wasps — including hornets — they’re bad-tempered little devils, perfectly content to make our lives a living hell.
It is this time of year that yellow jackets nest discoveries reach their peak. Because most of the jerks die off during the colder months, the reproduction process must begin anew each spring, with an overwintering queen crawling out of her wintery grave to begin laying eggs that will soon turn into hundreds, then thousands, of cranky offspring. By the middle of summer — usually right around Independence Day — the worker bees will begin emerging from the nest to forage for food, and that’s when the tell-tale finger-sized hole appears in the ground and swarms of yellow jackets begin seeking out John Deeres bearing humans.
As the summer wears on, the nests continually expand — that single queen is quite busy, as it turns out. By late August or early September, the nests that haven’t been doused with gas and set afire by gleeful humans who are still throbbing from the stings they received when they discovered those nests have expanded to include several thousand yellow jackets, and any creature dumb enough to get close to one is in for a rude awakening.
Unlike their close cousins, hornets, yellow jackets don’t tend to build their nests high in trees where they’re out-of-sight and out-of-mind for any human who keeps his Nikes on the ground like the good Lord intended. Instead, yellow jackets build their nests in ground cavities, hollow logs and other areas that are on our level, presumably so they can inflict pain and torture at every opportunity.
Men will not be surprised to learn that it’s only the female yellow jackets that are capable of stinging. The human female can sting with her tongue; the wasp female can sting with her rear-end. Either way, males know that the best way to deal with these angry females is to run — fast and far.
Living on a parcel of property that includes multiple fruit trees, my lawn is the yellow jacket capital of the northern Cumberland Plateau. In an average year, I find two or three nests about my lawn. I’ve found as many as five in a single summer — not bad for a single acre of grass. Hence, I mow my yard on high alert, ever ready to bail the mower and let it roll where it may (into the fence, into the pond; I couldn’t care less) while I scramble for refuge.
I had managed to avoid the yellow jackets this summer . . . until I took a recent hike in the Big South Fork.
I was crossing a stream when I met a couple who were hiking the same trail. Their black lab was chilling in the cool waters, submerged up to his neck. I commented that the dog had the right idea; I wouldn’t mind doing the same, I said.
“He got stung on the ear and he’s being cranky,” the woman remarked. “Darn his luck,” I said back. “I’d be cranky, too, if I got stung on the ear.”
Irony has a sick and twisted sense of humor, because it wasn’t 10 seconds after those words escaped my lips before a yellow jacket stuck me . . . right on the ear.
I yelped just like the dog had doubtlessly yelped when he got his own dose of yellow jacket venom, then began scrambling up the bank as the second yellow jacket dive-bombed my right foot. For what seemed like a couple of minutes but in reality was no more than a few seconds, I was scrambling up the bank, grabbing roots with one hand to pull myself up while swatting blindly at yellow jackets with my other hand.
Behind me, I heard one of the hikers calmly ask, “Yellow jackets?” I noticed he wasn’t coming to lend me a hand, in spite of the fact that his dog had stirred up the nest and gotten the devil spawn’s senses on high alert for my arrival. Instead, I imagined him snickering at my plight as I ran up the steep slope as quick as an out-of-shape hiker can run up a slope, arms flailing in all directions.
I lost count of how many times I got stung, but it was plenty. Considering a single yellow jacket sting usually leaves me curled in the fetal position in the bathroom floor, a fan running on high speed and blowing on my face to ward off nausea, I knew I was in trouble.
Climbing the mountain that stood in front of me, I must have been a sight to see — a snotty and sweaty mess, pouring all of my drinking water on the sting sites in an effort to cool the stinging sensations that were already giving away to sharp throbbing. I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details, but suffice to say I quickly made the decision to abandon my hike altogether, calling in search and rescue — my 37-weeks-pregnant wife — to meet me at the nearest vehicular access point.
I’m not sure how many federal laws I would be violating by carrying a couple of gallons of gas back in under the cover of darkness, but it was certainly tempting. Feeling secure in their subterranean nest as night falls, they would never see me coming. I could wage an ambush on them like they launched on me. And because every self-respecting Appalachian redneck knows that even though the gas fumes alone will kill the evil devils, there’s nothing more fun than lighting it afire and watching it burn, I’ll do that, too. I’ll watch the flames dancing in the night while imagining that I can hear the little sapsuckers squeal as they burn to a crisp.
And, no doubt, if they squeal loud enough, the sounds they’re making would probably closely resemble the sounds I was making as I was scrambling up the slope, swatting feverishly and accomplishing little as two hikers and one cranky stung-on-the-ear labrador retriever rolled with laughter behind me.