Bees were my nemesis when I was growing up. In a bad summer week I might get stung twice; during a good period I could go a couple months without being hit. I’m sure I never went a whole summer sting free, for our house in rural Indiana was purest heaven for bees and wasps. The rough wooden eaves in the barn provided a home for thousands of paper wasps and mud daubers. Bumblebees loved the zinnias in the front row of the garden so much they slept on the petals each night. Billions of white clover flowers dominated the lawn, where feasting honeybees grew fat as cows.
This profusion of stinging insects conflicted with my older brother’s edict that he and I should live the school-free months without shoes. So dedicated were we to this principle that in April we would march barefoot around the gravel loop driveway 20 times each night for five nights in a row just to get our soles toughened up for the season. I now realize the shoeless fashion policy was a poor choice considering our bee-laden habitat, but at the time I couldn’t think of doing it any other way. As a result, I stepped on and was stung regularly by honeybees. I sometimes trod accidentally on a bumblebee or wasp, but I was much more likely to be stung by them through careless flailing of my arms and legs while I was playing. In fairness to the wasps, they weren’t inclined to attack unless provoked. But I still regarded them as the most ferocious enemy. I ducked in terror whenever one floated near me and killed them when I thought I could get away with it.
As an adult I’ve been stung far less often due to a more sedentary life-style, improved limb control, and shoes. I’ve also changed habitat. In the city I’m not engulfed by bees and wasps.
That is, until September rolls around. In the late summer and early fall yellow jackets rule Chicago’s streets and parks like tiny thugs. They lie thick on fallen hawthorn berries squashed on sidewalks. Any open garbage bin will have a half dozen buzzing about. They menace small children, forcing them to drop their Popsicles and run for cover. They intimidate adults by swarming wineglasses at outdoor parties, landing on cups of Coke at ball games, and dive-bombing tuna sandwiches during lunch.
While yellow jackets are around all summer, they are most abundant and obvious now. In spring the only yellow jackets alive are queens who were fertilized the previous fall. In the first warm weather of April or May they leave their winter shelters to build nests. A queen will spend the first part of the summer producing sterile female workers who take care of her and the larvae. While the first workers born live only two weeks, those hatched in August have longer life spans, of 22 days. By August new queens and fertile males also begin to be produced, building the population of yellow jackets gradually to its September peak.
But the reason we’re plagued by yellow jackets now isn’t just because there are more of them. The quality of their lives has undergone a radical shift. By September yellow jackets have lost their reason for living. (Scientists have my permission to make retching noises and say, “Gag me with an anthropomorphic spoon.”) But the statement isn’t far from true. Yellow jackets are social insects; they live for the colony and nothing but the colony. Defending the nest against intruders, feeding the queen, encasing her larvae in paper cells, bringing the young ones delectable flies and meaty caterpillars–all of this preoccupies the daily life of a worker during the warm months. But in September the social organization totally disintegrates.
With the birth of new queens and the death or physical deterioration of the founding queen, the colony basically goes to hell in a hand basket. The previously selfless workers begin to fight among themselves, even stinging one another in an effort to achieve dominance. They stop feeding the larvae. Some workers split and never return. The workers who remain may begin to rip the larvae and pupae from their protected cells. They either eat their young siblings or carry them away, abandoning them to die. The larvae that do manage to hatch out may be wingless and deformed from neglect. The paper nest itself, so carefully constructed, begins to decompose rapidly, sped along by insect scavengers who are no longer fought off by workers. Some of the workers who leave may establish mutinous, queenless colonies, building formless wood pulp structures that poorly imitate the tight orbs produced early in the season.
These are the pathetic ways workers spend their last days when they feel they’re no longer needed. Meanwhile their fertile sisters and virile brothers are flying through the air having passionate sex on the wing. Given the circumstances, the workers might be entitled to act a little surly.
Only the queens will make it through the winter. So what does a worker have to lose by trying to taste the orzo salad at Jerome’s before she keels? If the guy who ordered the salad swats her with his cellular phone, big deal. She’s going to die as soon as there’s a cold snap anyway.
Ron Panzer, a biologist at Northeastern Illinois University, describes this time as the workers’ hedonistic phase. He says yellow jackets are in our faces because “they’re trying to find one perfect piece of ice cream before they die.”
I was recently at the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of my least favorite places in all of Chicago. When I leaned on a fence to stare at a zebra, I inadvertently pressed my knee against a railing where a yellow jacket was crawling. She was probably enjoying some mess left by a child’s sticky palm until I started to accidentally squish her. She stung me once on the knee. I jumped back and ran. Unlike honeybees, which die immediately after stinging someone, a yellow jacket can pull out its weapon and thrust it into your skin again and again with no harm to itself.
This was the first time I’d been stung in years, and it had a curious effect. I felt dizzy, almost high. It wasn’t from the pain, exactly, though that was intense. I felt as though I could sense the poison the insect injected into me coursing through the veins in my leg. My arm, far away from the sting, began to tingle, and I felt a ripple of a feverish chill throughout my body. I recalled that an acquaintance once described to me how it felt when he was bitten by a rattlesnake, saying the sensation was like taking a hallucinogen. “It might have even been pleasant if I hadn’t been so sweaty and scared,” he said. In the same way, my light-headedness from the sting wasn’t agonizing, but it did make me nervous. After several minutes the sensation passed, leaving me with the normal heat of a bee sting and a large welt.
The stinging apparatus of a bee doesn’t constantly protrude the way it does in cartoons. Most of the time it’s tucked up inside the abdominal cavity. In a yellow jacket it’s a three-prong mechanism whose barbed blades all meet at the tip, making a single entry point when it stabs something. The venom bees release is a rich blend of poisons, and yellow jackets mix one of the worst brews. The authors of a 1982 U.S. Department of Agriculture handbook called The Yellow Jackets of America North of Mexico say the insect “possesses a fiery sting seemingly all out of proportion to its size.” Panzer told me he once drank out of a pop can a yellow jacket had crawled inside. When it stung him on the inside of his mouth it hurt so much he thought he’d been cut by a razor blade.
Yellow jacket venom is a concoction of several proteins, a histamine, a kinin, and serotonin (the stuff Prozac releases in the body). People experience a variety of physical responses to bee venom. Some are far more sensitive than others, and a few have dramatic allergic reactions. You probably know someone who swells up and feels sick when stung; the reaction I had to the yellow jacket at the zoo also indicates a slight allergy. But some people are so profoundly allergic that they die minutes after being stung. Each year some 15 to 20 people in the U.S. are reported to die from being stung, and many more deaths are probably incorrectly attributed to heart attacks, since the external symptoms are similar.
In the yellow jackets’ defense, not all the numerous species of this insect are scavengers that live uncomfortably close to humans. Hating all yellow jackets because of the unattractive behavior of the Vespula vulgaris group would be like detesting every species of bird because you don’t like pigeons. There’s an entire branch of the yellow-jacket family that wouldn’t deign to touch you or your sorbet. They live on other insects and nectar from flowers. Even the scavenger species consume large quantities of flies, caterpillars, spiders, and other bees. If we were to eliminate all yellow jackets it would likely increase the populations of these other insects.
I’ve made a certain peace with bees and wasps. Clearly I’m not above making disparaging comments in public about the yellow jacket’s crass September behavior, but I’ve adopted a laissez-faire policy for daily living. I don’t avoid going outside, and if I’m trying to eat with a bunch of yellow jackets swarming my sandwich I shoo them away. I don’t jump and wave my arms around. In the 14 Septembers I’ve spent in Chicago I’ve never been stung by any of the yellow jackets that swagger around at picnics.
Nevertheless I’ll pass along an ingenious idea I read about in the USDA handbook for getting rid of them at an outdoor party. It’s ecologically correct and somewhat creepy. But it sounds like it might work. Near where the party will be, string a freshly killed fish over a pan of water to which a wetting agent (like detergent) has been added. Break the skin on both sides of the fish to give yellow jackets access to the flesh. When a worker comes to the fish she’ll typically tear off a bigger piece than she can handle. Then she’ll try to fly a short distance away to trim it to a manageable size. The first chunk she takes is frequently so heavy that she drops downward. Normally she’s above grass or something safe, so this dipping motion is no big deal. But here she’ll hit the pan of water. Since the surface tension has been reduced by the wetting agent, she’ll quickly sink and drown.
The trap may not be the most attractive party decoration you’ve ever displayed. But if it works it has two strengths: It doesn’t require pesticides. And since it depends on the yellow jacket taking more fish than she can eat, it has the appeal of all great revenge plans–her own greed will do her in.