Close encounters of the stinging kind

Close encounters of the stinging kind
John C. Lorson

This bumble bee, on approach to a jewel weed blossom, may be the least of your worries. Even though capable of delivering multiple stings, the bumble bee’s steady temperament and singular focus on gathering pollen and nectar from flowers rarely put it at odds with humans, but such is not the case with hornets and yellow jackets. Their aggression is legendary, and their stings can be relentless and even fatal in some circumstances.


It was a wonderful day for mountain biking. The morning air was cool, the sky was clear and the afternoon high was forecast to fall well short of the scorchers we’d seen throughout August.

That heat had actually done mountain bikers a favor as the leafy vegetation that works throughout the spring and summer to gobble up the rider’s preferred single-track had begun its annual burn-down a good bit early. Even the weeds had struggled in the heat. We had barely begun to roll when my buddy, Mike, shouted and rode right off the trail, swatting at his shoulder with a gloved hand.

“Wasp, or hornet or whatever!” he shouted. “He got me!”

My first question — and one that should be asked in every such situation — was whether he was allergic. Thankfully, that was not the case, and he pedaled on with little more than an impressive welt and a fair dose of pain. Back at the car after our first lap, a quick clean-up with an alcohol swab and a few minutes with an ice pack moved him along toward a full recovery. We avoided that same section of trail for the rest of the day.

The outcome was tragically different for a mountain biker who was traveling one of our favorite routes in North Carolina a few years ago. He’d merely brushed by a hornet nest at the edge of the trail, and the insects attacked, stinging him multiple times. Despite a known allergy, he had inadvertently left his EpiPen behind that day. Miles from the nearest road, his friends could do nothing to save him.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 62 Americans die from hornet, wasp and bee stings each year. An astonishing 80% of those victims are male. If you spend time in the outdoors and have been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening allergy, please be sure to carry your doctor-prescribed EpiPen at all times. And it never hurts to let your companions know of your condition up front as well. It could mean the difference between life and death.

This time of year seems to drive hornets and yellow jackets to the height of aggression, and it doesn’t take much to trigger these social wasps into an attack. Unlike honeybees that literally sacrifice themselves in the act of a sting, wasp species can sting multiple times. A barb on the stinger of the honeybee assures it will remain in the victim for maximum impact but essentially eviscerates the insect as it pulls away. Worse yet, some wasp species actually use their mouths to bite and hold onto a victim to maximize the penetration of the sting.

While not allergic, I grew up with a healthy fear of all stinging insects. As a barefoot boy with a tendency to head off into the high grass, I’ve been stung dozens of times over the years and figure it to be more or less a fact of life. In my experience the only honeybee stings I’ve received were a result of stepping directly onto an individual bee. The insect had no choice but to react in self-defense.

I also have been stung by both hornets and yellow jackets, and as far as I was concerned, I’d done nothing at all to provoke the attack. The truth is, however, I must have positioned myself in some way as to seem a threat to a nest, food source or the queen herself. Maybe I walked a little too close to the entrance of an underground yellow jacket nest, or maybe my apple-picking had come a bit too close to some unseen hornet nest a bit higher in the tree.

When danger approaches, many stinging insects release a chemical trigger called pheromone that instantly alerts their kin to the perceived threat. The more individuals engage the threat, the more pheromone is released. That’s how we sometimes end up with vicious, swarming attacks that result in multiple stings. We may think our actions are entirely unprovocative, but it’s not up to us — and it doesn’t take much. Please be mindful when you’re out and about and stay safe. The season is full of stingers.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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