Wild Ideas: Be careful or bee stung

With few insects out and about this cold winter, I miss the hordes that showed up in my yard last summer. Now that I’ve gained some perspective, I’m ready to tell the tale of how I inadvertently entered into a war with hymenopterans, testing my passion for nature.

Although less than an inch long, bald-faced hornets are fierce predators and defenders of their nests.
Although less than an inch long, bald-faced hornets are fierce predators and defenders of their nests.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

I was refilling the hummingbird feeder on my deck last summer but got distracted and neglected to follow my usual procedure of looking under the base first to see if any insects (especially stinging ones) are feeding there. As I unscrewed the base, I felt a sharp stab in my left forefinger. Realizing I had been stung but not seeing the attacker, I thought it was just a paper wasp, the sting of which, for me, causes only a small reaction. I quickly knocked out the base and started for the door with the feeder to fill it inside.

Suddenly I was stung several more times — five times in all, as I later discovered. I hurried in, with one of my attackers right behind me. It landed on a window screen, and I immediately recognized it by its black body and fierce white face — a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), a member of the Hymenoptera order of insects, one of the largest and comprising ants, sawflies, bees and wasps.

Bald-faced hornets usually show up at my hummer feeder during the summer, at which point I move the feeder farther away from the house, but this was the first one I’d seen since the previous summer. Although called a hornet, they are actually in a different genus of wasp. About three-quarters of an inch long, they are highly socialized and known for fiercely protecting their nest and food sources. They are so tough that they prey on other wasps, including yellow jackets, attacking them in midair.

Fortunately, I’m not deathly allergic to hymenopteran stings, but that doesn’t mean these weren’t excruciatingly painful, and the sites were swelling up fast. I took some antihistamine pills and then tried to figure out how to get the nest off the deck. There were a lot of very agitated bald-faced hornets now flying around out there. I’d been away for a few days, and apparently they had moved in while I was gone.

Looking closely at their flight pattern, I spotted the beginnings of a nest in one of two metal candle holders on a three-tiered metal stand within a few feet of my hummer feeder. The candle holders look like houses, with cutouts of animals and a star. Only about five inches tall and four inches wide, the holders seemed like a poor choice, since their paper nests can reach 14 inches in diameter.

Knowing that bald-faced hornets will abandon their nest if it hits the ground, I decided to wait until after dark, when the coolness should slow down the wasps, and then try to grab the candle holder with a long-handled garden pick and fling onto the ground. However, the candle holder was on the second shelf, with no clear path to the ground, and when I attempted to hook it with the pick, the hornets started to come out. Apparently the night was not cool enough.

The paper nest of the bald-faced hornet can reach 14 inches in diameter.
The paper nest of the bald-faced hornet can reach 14 inches in diameter.
By Bpbmainer via Wikimedia

Reluctantly, I moved on to the next plan: spraying the nest with a pyrethrum-based insecticide. A chemical produced by chrysanthemums, in high concentrations pyrethrum can still kill a broad spectrum of insects, but it’s not as lethal or persistent in the environment as non-organic sprays. I doused the whole metal stand pretty thoroughly, hoping that would encourage the hornets to leave, with few or no casualties.

The next morning, I found that the whole candleholder had disappeared. Briefly having an image of the hornets flying off with it to safety, I knew the more likely scenario was that the raccoon that had been hanging around made off with it, chowing down on its protein-packed contents. I later found the candleholder in the yard, with part of the now-destroyed nest inside but no hornets. I was doubly glad that I hadn’t used a more lethal insect spray and only hoped that whatever ate the hornets didn’t end up ingesting too much of the pyrethrum-based spray I did use.

Amazingly, the wasps kept trying to build a new nest right next to where the old one had been, so with even more reluctance I moved on to the backup of the backup plan — using a truly nasty waspinator spray. At first the wasps didn’t seem to pay much attention to the assault, but after a day or two they finally disappeared. Seeing no dead ones in the area, I hoped that all had survived and found a better place for their nest.

Although I had pretty much recovered from the pain and swelling from the encounter with the bald-faced hornets within a week, I was more concerned about my mental reaction. The attack had triggered a sustained, heightened flight-or-fight response, probably thanks in part to my fibromyalgia. Nature seemed truly against me, since for some unknown reason, last year was a boom year for hymenopterans in my yard, including what appeared to be an escaped honeybee colony that visited for a while. No matter where I went, I heard buzzing close by. I didn’t blame the hymenopterans, which generally have left me alone, but my lizard brain still apparently was on alert.

Each time I went into the yard to observe and photograph the many invertebrates I enjoyed seeing there, I purposely took a deep breath and tried to relax. However, a few days after the attack, as I kneeled down to photograph a nursery web spider guarding her egg sack in her web, I heard buzzing near my head. When the buzzing didn’t stop, I slowly moved away a few feet, but couldn’t lose the sound. So I moved, still slowly, toward the steps of the house to my kitchen door, just a few feet away, then darted in, hoping to elude whatever hymenopteran was following me. Instead I immediately felt a sting on the inside of the upper part of my right arm.

I couldn’t see what had done it but still heard buzzing, so I tore off my shirt and saw a couple of tiny bees fly off. I couldn’t believe that something so small had delivered as much pain as the bald-faced hornets. The bees obviously had gotten trapped inside my sleeve somehow.

While I could still hear the bees buzzing around furiously in my house, I couldn’t find them. I nervously parked my butt on the couch, hoping they’d move to the screen door in the kitchen and I could let them out. After a few minutes they did just that, so I opened the door, and off they flew.

As my bald-faced opponents in the hymenopteran war proved, size does not matter if you’re fierce, persistent and pack a huge wallop. Give me an angry bear any day over these fierce little warriors when they’re in defense mode.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”