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October 17. 2014 8:47PM

Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Hornets, wasps and bees — oh my!

STINGING THINGS have long been my downfall when it comes to being “out in nature.” My mother tells me that when I was a child in my crib I got stung on the ankle by a wasp — or at least sufficient evidence including a sting mark on my swollen ankle and a wasp in the window added up to this conclusion. Whether this “trauma” actually happened in my infancy, as an adult I do go into a bit of a panic over most stinging insects, particularly when there is one of those wasps flying around the beams of the dining room with the legs that hang so pendulously that it looks like a cruel joke — and it looks like they are going to land in my hair any minute to ease their burden.

Imagine the chaos if there is a bee in my car. I stopped for gas the other day and while the gas was pumping I opened the passenger’s door to be able to hear the radio — and a small bee who was apparently hanging with its friends around the trash receptacle flew into my car. One of those mini yellow-and-black things, not a bumblebee, but definitely with the rotund fuzzy body of a bee, not the naked thin waist of a wasp.

It darted around the front of the cab. I was yelling like Mick Jagger, “Hey! Hey! You! You! Get out of my car!” and using a magazine that was lying on the seat to try to sweep it out. Thankfully I was successful or I would have had to walk the remaining four miles home and left my car abandoned until the bee had died a natural death. And someone would have had to show me its dead body before I would get back in the car.

So-called “ground bees” are horseback riders’ and dog walkers’ fall nemesis. These are actually yellow jackets, not bees (ground bees actually nest in the ground individually and are not very aggressive). Facebook postings lately have included ones about accidental walk-overs of a ground nest. One friend who walks dogs for a living advised always bringing Benadryl on your dog walks and finding out ahead of time from your veterinarian what the appropriate Benadryl dose is for your dog. Apparently, she had a friend whose dog disturbed a ground nest, got stung many times (yellow jackets can sting repeatedly, honey bees only once), and died when her airway was blocked from the swelling and they were far away from medical help.

Horse riders this time of year can go for quite the ride when a nest is stepped on. This is actually serious business; friends of mine have experienced being bucked off and broken limbs from this very situation. Typically the first rider over the nest makes out okay but (often unsuspectingly) disturbs it for the following riders who get the brunt of the angry mob.

I have had to up my courage about this phobia of mine since the stinging creatures are everywhere around the farm. Nests are built in the barn under the rafters behind the stacked hay bales — south facing, warm and hidden until I pull away the bale against the wall. I’ve learned to watch for them.

The same south-facing wall in the lower story has an area I walk through to a run-in stall where I have been zapped by those pesty ”mud daubers,” whose sting feels like someone blew out a match and ground its still-hot head into your arm. Wasps like to build their little umbrella-like paper nests on the ceiling of the self-standing run-in shed and in between its double walls, making it uncomfortable for the horses to relax in the shed during the heat of summer.

Sadly, I spray wasp killer on active nests at least once every 10 days or so most of the summer.

My favorite is when the yellow jackets build nests in the tubes of the fence gates, which have openings on the bottom of either side. You find out there is a nest there by making them particularly angry when you open the gate. They come looking for the entrance to their house and it has moved — they don’t know it is only temporary and they take their annoyance out on me. I’ve finally learned to watch the bottoms of the gates all season long. Spraying them is difficult since you need to do it with the can upside down.

I can’t eat “al fresco” most of the fall since the chances of biting into your sandwich with a yellow jacket perched in it are too high. And now I have gotten it in my head to paint the front of the house (I know, I know, it’s late, it has to be at least 50 degrees to paint, yadda yadda), and will eventually need to deal with the yellow jackets that are taking up winter residence behind one of the clapboards of my residence.

Wasps, bees, yellow jackets — I don’t want to kill them. What are all these darn stinging insects and what are they going about doing? None of the ones I encounter are honey bees whose benefits to pollination are well documented and well respected. Are these guys just here to make my life miserable both directly with their stinging and indirectly with getting depressed about spraying them?

According to the resources on the UNH Cooperative Extension website (go to and search any bee-related word and you will come up with a great resource list), they definitely do their part to keep the natural world in balance.

Bees, one article says, feed pollen and nectar to their young, which is what makes them the expert pollinators.

Wasps, on the other hand, feed insects to their young, which makes them great predators for agricultural pest insects. And, it says, the scavengers like the ones that make fall al fresco dining unpleasant are not very sensitive to insecticides, so they exist because they do.

The articles all make interesting reading even if just the words “yellow jackets,” “paper wasps,” and “bald-faced hornets” practically send me diving to a ground nest for cover.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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