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Wednesday, 24 August 2011 12:17

When it comes to stings, all aren’t created equal

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A number of readers have informed me that the agonizing sting I described in last week’s column was the work of a Japanese hornet. That sent me trotting to my computer, where I read a description of being stung by one. He wrote the sting of a Japanese hornet felt like having a hot nail driven into his leg.

I guess one man’s hot nail is another woman’s hot poker. I had written it felt akin to a hot metal poker being jabbed in my foot.

In actuality, a European hornet probably stung me — the Japanese hornet isn’t present in North America. The European hornet is the largest and, technically, the only true hornet found here. It was first reported in 1840 in New York, and the European hornet has since spread to most of the eastern United States. I certainly don’t remember seeing bees this size while growing up in Bryson City, though maybe I simply didn’t pay attention and they’ve been here all along.

Here’s the official description, courtesy of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: “Adults somewhat resemble yellow jackets, but are much larger (about one-and-a-half inches) and are brown with yellow markings. Queens, which may be seen in the spring, are more reddish than brown, and are larger than the workers. Nests are typically built in hollow trees, but they are often found in barns, sheds, attics, and wall voids of houses. Unlike its cousin, the bald-faced hornet, European hornets rarely build nests that are free hanging or in unprotected areas. Frequently, the nest is built at the cavity opening, rather than deep within. The outside of the exposed nest will be covered with coarse, thick, tan, paper-like material fashioned from decayed wood fibers. Nests built in wall voids may emit a noticeable stench.”

Now that I’ve been stung by one, I’m seeing them everywhere. Including a nest under the porch of a cabin on the property here. I’m suspicious that the hornets are actually in the wall of the cabin, flying down into a crack through the porch, but I hope that I’m wrong. That will mean suiting up in protective clothing and pulling off boards to get to them. Understandably, I’m not eager to be stung again by one of these monster-sized hornets.

I’ve helped with bee removals before at other people’s homes. Usually it’s honeybees that take up residence. Here’s a free tip for those of you who want to do the removal yourself: fill the cavity with fiberglass insulation after you’ve gotten the bees out. Otherwise, it is inevitable that another swarm of honeybees eventually will take up residence in the same place, attracted by the pheromones of their predecessors.

Since the column published last week, I’ve had several people ask me why I fool with honeybees since I react so violently to being stung. There’s a big difference between swelling from the venom — which is what I do — and having an actual life-threatening allergic reaction.

Most people have some sort of reaction — pain, swelling, redness and itching, that kind of thing. I’m in smaller subset, about 10 to 15 percent of people, who experience larger areas of swelling for up to a week. Uncomfortable, yes; unsightly, yes; but not life-threatening.

Over in Macon County, Lewis Penland, who heads up the planning board, falls into the still rarer group (about 3 percent) who have full-blown allergic reactions that cause anaphylaxis. It forced him to give up honeybee keeping.

The same thing happened to my maternal grandfather, if I remember the stories correctly. He had honeybees, but one day he simply couldn’t have them anymore — he’d developed full-blown allergies to the venom. It happens like that sometimes.

Interestingly, the venom of various stinging insects isn’t the same chemically speaking. I hardly swell from yellow jacket stings, or wasps. But let a honeybee pop me and I blow up like a hideous balloon animal.

And, I’ve now learned, from the sting of a Japanese/European hornet.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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