Nine-Minute Naturalist: Late Summer Stings

By David,

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Late Summer Stings

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!

Nothing interrupts a peaceful late summer hike than the swelling pain of a yellow jacket sting. We have entered the time of year when everyone at Wintergreen and all of central Virginia need to pay attention while hiking or picnicking. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why human/yellow jacket interaction is reaching its crescendo for the year.


Yellow jacket


Through the majority of summer, worker yellow jackets are focused on building up nests and raising the next generation of queens. These colonies have a set social structure that keeps order when tasks are clearly defined. Early summer, the workers focus on gathering protein in the form of other insects to feed the growing larvae. Their focus is in growing the colony and producing queens. During this phase of the summer, yellow jackets rarely show aggression due to their focus on the tasks at hand.


Yellow jacket nest


By late summer the workers’ (1000-4000 per colony) role and dietary needs begin to change. The first change is in their diet. They focus much more on sugars and fats to increase the fat reserves for the queens. This sends them in search of more human forms of food. Cracking a sugary soda at a cookout and the yellow jackets are bound to show up. The next major change is in their colony roles. The role changes as they have maxed out the colony and the queens are beginning to leave the nest in search of overwintering locations. When she departs, many of the worker yellow jackets leave with her resulting in a horde of homeless, taskless stinging insects.

Another key factor increasing the likelihood of encountering angry yellow jackets is black bears. We have entered a season of increasing activity for bears as they are sensing the need to fatten up for winter. This need coincides with the increase in activity in the queen-less yellow jacket nests. Bears, as well as skunks and raccoons, can get a decent meal of protein by feeding on this protein rich food. Once the nest has been attacked, the surviving wasps are in quite a frenzy and pose a much greater risk to hikers.

The sting of the yellow jacket is unique in its pain delivery. It starts as a pinch sensation and swells to a burning, itching feeling. On the Schmidt pain scale, the yellow jacket ranks at a 2.0 out of 4. It is above the honeybee and fire ant but below the paper wasp and bullet ant. You may experience swelling and redness around the sting site for hours afterwards. Yellow jacket treatments can vary. If you are allergic, call 911 and prepare to use your Epi-Pen. For the majority who are not allergic to their stings, ice application is the most straight forward approach. Keep ice applied for up to 20 minutes. The next option is to take an anti-histamine such as Benedryl, which can reduce sting symptoms. A nice easy remedy is mixing a spoonful of baking soda in water and applying with a swab can fight the acidic nature of the venom. Vinegar applications can reduce the itching if that continues to be a problem.

Wintergreen residents need to be on guard for our marauding, homeless yellow jackets both in the woods and at your next cookout. If you are unfortunate enough to find a nest on the trails call 434-325-8169 or email me at Stay safe!

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