Outdoors Columns

Up Moses Creek: Yellow Jacket Muse P.S.

A yellow jacket on a yellow flower may look mellow.  But as they say up Moses Creek: “black and yellow  sting a fellow.”  Fred Coyle photo. A yellow jacket on a yellow flower may look mellow. But as they say up Moses Creek: “black and yellow sting a fellow.”  Fred Coyle photo.

(This piece is a follow-up to a previous “Up Moses Creek” column published Sept. 13 and available online at smokymountainnews.com/outdoors/item/36356-yellow-jacket-muse.)

One afternoon last month I went to look for wide, flat rocks in the woods above our house.

I wanted to use them as stepping stones for a walkway in the yard.  Becky joined me, and, although flat rocks can be hard to find, by luck the first three we turned up were nature’s perfect pavers. It was like walking into a freshly plowed field and finding three fine arrowheads right off. 

Becky was in front scouting when I heard her say, “This one looks good,” and she tapped her foot on a gray surface showing through the fallen leaves. I pushed my crowbar under an edge, pried it up, grabbed with both hands and, with a grunt, pulled the rock straight up.

“It’s perfect!” I said, patting the underside. Then I saw I’d ripped off the top of a yellow jacket nest below. It was as if I’d pulled the roof off a house and inside hundreds of angry yellow faces were glaring up at me.

We keep an eye out for yellow jackets, especially in late summer and early fall. That’s when their nests are largest, their numbers are at a peak, and they are most protective of the colony, queen and larvae. But, excited by our three lucky finds in a row, we hadn’t taken time to check for fliers coming and going from that rock.

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“Run!” I yelled, letting the rock drop, and took off through the woods, swatting left and right. Yellow jackets have stung me aplenty over the years — wasps and hornets too — but I’d never been swarmed like that.

When I told a friend about it later, he wrote: “I almost feel myself furiously trying to get the goddamned things off even while I'm gripped in frustration at not being able to anticipate where I most need to thrash and swat and scrape first, and knowing that wherever I guess, the guess is going to be wrong, and knowing that however long I keep at it there will remain others of the damnable things somewhere on or near me still hunting for more places to sting.”

But one thing I did not have to guess at while I ran and swatted — the fiery flashes I felt on my neck and arms, and going on down my legs, lighting up my left bum en route.  

I’ve noticed that yellow jackets sting in two ways. There’s the classic single plunge, the stinger probing deep, but there’s also the raking burst, where the insect moves along while its stinger whizzes up and down as fast as a sewing machine needle. Unlike honeybees, which sting once and die, yellow jackets live to sting and sting again. Half of those on me were deep thrusters; the rest were sewing away.   

Becky had run in the opposite direction, and by the time I’d killed the stingers on me, including the hitchhikers on my clothes, I didn’t know where she was. And when I called, all I heard besides my own loud breathing was silence. It didn’t help that my hearing isn’t what it used to be and that I’d ripped off my hearing aids during the fight.

Worried now, and imagining that Becky might have had a bad allergic reaction, or in turning to run had twisted her ankle and fallen near the nest, I quick doubled back, going straight up a steep slope. I got just close enough to see she wasn’t near the nest when the stingers jumped me again — the first one setting my left eyelid on fire.

I was so relieved when I finally heard Becky answer my calls. She was coming up the driveway towards the house. She’d been stung at least four times, she told me. She also said that while making her getaway, she’d been thinking, of all things, about the article on yellow jackets I’d written for last month’s Smoky Mountain News. She was trying to remember if it said how far you had to go to be safe after riling up a nest. But the article didn’t cover that.

We laughed that she must have made it almost to Cullowhee, 6 miles, before rounding back!

(Burt and Becky Kornegay live in Jackson County.)

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