Editorial: Zen and the Art of Yellowjackets

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Stay calm. Make no sudden movements. Whatever you do, don’t flail hands and arms about wildly, shriek or run. Above all, do not kill one. It might summon an army of assailants intent on revenge and driving their perceived enemy off.

It was last Sunday, at a community event overlooking a lake and a view of mountains to the south and west when we witnessed a performance of Zen and the Art of Yellowjackets.

The vespids, meaning members of the wasp family, are uninvited guests at every picnic, no more so than in the fall when they are at their hungriest and most aggressive. Reports of people walking innocently through the woods when they’re attacked by a swarm of bees usually means they stepped on a yellowjacket nest. Bees, meaning honey bees, swarm when their hive is overcrowded. They pig out on honey to fuel up for the trip, which makes it hard to sting, and aren’t usually aggressive because they have no hive to defend. But ground bees, as they’re called, are ornery.

The affair was a fish fry featuring locally-caught horned pout, small, succulent catfish better tasting than trout. It is a belly-busting surfeit of pot-luck food made by people who know how to cook. The yellowjackets know that. In the same mysterious way that birds and butterflies know when to fly south and leaves know when to change color, the yellowjackets know when it’s time for the fish fry. Yellowjackets love fish, as well as ripe fruit, sugary drinks and beer. Can’t say we blame them.

The insects mostly nest underground, especially where it’s easy digging. In our case one year, that meant a raised bed of potatoes grown under straw. Rake your hand through that and see how it feels. They’ll also nest in the walls of a house and other awkward places. In one case, they nested in a boot left idle too long on a porch. The boot’s owner hot-footed it out of there after pulling it on.

A scientist, Dr. Justin Schmidt, subjected himself to the stings of some 70 insects to create a pain index that ranges from 0 – annoying – to 4 – excruciating. Yellowjackets, the most aggressive insects in New England, rated a 2. Schmidt described it as the late vaudeville comedian W. C. Fields extinguishing his cigar on your tongue. He underrated the pain. It feels like getting stabbed with a red hot ice pick and the more stings you get – each can sting more than once, unlike bees – the more it hurts and the more their target swells. The more often someone is stung the worse the reaction to their poison is.

Which brings us back to the Zen of dealing with the yellowjackets. Our hostess, a New Hampshire girl with a southern accent, is a yellowjacket magnet. She had spent the day cooking. As she went from table to table, catching up with guests, yellowjackets followed her. They crawled over her sandaled feet, checked out her hair, and most of all, loved crawling over and under her hands. She said she used to panic when that happened but that made matters worse so she trained herself to accept them and be calm. When she did, she didn’t get stung.

Guests gasped when a yellowjacket nestled under her thumb while others crawled over her wrist and fingers. Close her hand and she would be stung. Finally, more recognizing our discomfort than her own, she left to wash her hands. It was a command performance by one who has learned to live in peace with nature.