Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Knights in White Cotton

Vespula maculifrons copyright tom murrayWhat does it take to save 5,000 buggy lives and reassure a hundred or so humans to boot? One beekeeper's jacket, some old gloves, and a pair of worn pajama pants.

What is this about? This past weekend, I received an email which, to any beekeeper, amounts to a curiousity and a provocation. Its content?




"Ground nesting bees," in fluent beekeeper, translates to "Africanized Bee" (or "killer bee" to Hollywood idiots). Beekeepers try to keep an eye out for movements of Africanized bees, especially if they are not known to be anywhere near our area.

But the truth is, most people don't know the difference between any two arthropods with stingers, so these were probably yellowjackets, and bees were being libelled here!

Even so, our family (dogs and all) are members of this historic cemetery, which supports itself in part with fees from dogwalkers, so it seemed important to figure out the truth of the problem and a possible solution.

So I ignored the warning, sauntered past the security perimeter, and checked things out. Frozen, like a moment in amber, was a groundsperson's cart with it's dumper in mid-air, someone's sunglasses abandoned on the floor, rakes and hoes and stakes thrown willy-nilly. *Sigh* Some poor sod got stung but bad!

But today? Out of a nearby log came a steady in-and-out stream of yellowjackets. They are easy to spot if you are used to looking at bees. They are usually smaller and thinner, are smooth (bees are hairy), and they are a brighter yellow and black (bees are more gold-and-brown). The yellowjackets spent no time at all looking at me, however, and just went on their way. The picture you see above is of the species I think it was, Vespula maculifrons, courtesy of photographer Tom Murray. Thanks Tom!

So I wrote this email to the cemetery caretaker:
Hi there --

I am a cemetery member, but also a beekeeper, so I went down today to check this out. I think I can help.

The first thing you will probably be glad to hear is that there is no persistent danger here. It looks like your landscape folks disturbed a yellowjacket nest while emptying their vehicle of debris, but things have settled down, and people walking by will not be bothered. You literally have to agitate the nest or jump around energetically in front of the nest to cause a problem now.

HOWEVER, the yellowjackets (which are actually wasps) will certainly get temporarily agitated when you try to move that vehicle which has been left half-empty, and I can help there. I can suit up and move the cart, or I can suit up WITH one of your grounds workers and just advise while they move the cart. It should be pretty simple, and should only get the wasps going for a relatively short time.

These creatures probably frightened the workers quite severely (the yellowjackets were actually pretty upset themselves, seeing their home cave in) but I really feel that by sharing some information damage to humans could be avoided in future. I'd be happy to talk about this with your people, but the main points follow:

* The area where the nest was disturbed is almost certainly home to many more nests, and it is not practical to try to find and destroy them all. Plus, the nests will all die with the first frost (with the exception of one queen, who will be buried deep in the ground for a winter nap).
* The wasps/yellowjackets build their population up from that one queen who survives into the Spring, and this is the time of year when populations are at their highest. In our area, this is also a time when food is short, so the wasps are easier to rile. It's not going to surprise you to learn, then, that people get stung most often in late August and September.
* The spot where the nest was is perfect yellowjacket habitat: they nest in loose soil and in hollows in dead wood, and both are abundant at that spot. I'd recommend in future that chunks of wood like that be disposed of further back from the pathways and loading/unloading areas. It's also worth remembering, in late summer, that wasps are more common, and to take a quick look around a spot with lots of debris before dumping on it.

This point usually leaves people a bit dubious, but we are all actually better off with these creatures around. They feed their young the larvae of other insects (like mosquitos, flies, roaches, and so on) and the adults are fairly decent pollinators. By the way, wasps are not bees, though they are cousins. Wasps, as noted, are carnivores, while bees are vegetarians. This ends up mattering to humans because wasps are designed to sting over and over in order to catch prey, while bees can only sting once (and then they die). Also, "swarming" is a behaviour that bees engage in when they are splitting one colony in two, and half of the bees go looking for a new home. Bees almost never sting while doing this, and wasps don't swarm. We beekeepers would not call the army of wasps that went after the workers a swarm because it is not as organized and coherent as all that, though this information would not be much comfort to the landscape workers!



Tom, the caretaker, was pretty happy about this email, and I met him down there to suit up. He was wearing dark pants, so he had the rare privilege of having to pull on some washed out PJ bottoms that I only wear over my clothes when the girls are really cheesed off. He started the cart, drove it away, and I hung around about 25 feet away (dressed in my second-place veil and a longsleeved white t-shirt) to see how the wasps would react, and to compare their reaction to that of the honeybees I am used to.

The answer is that yellowjackets are unhappier about home disturbances than honeybees, but it is not on a horro-movie scale. When I moved a few feet closer, I attracted a single wasp and a sting. I'd actually been hoping to get a sting (hey, you don't have to shake your head... I know what you are doing!) in order to (a) see the beastie up close and ID her; (b) observe the differences in stinger use; (c) get an idea of their defensive perimeter; and (d) see for myself whether bee venom and wasp venom provoke different immune reactions.

The answer to these questions was:
(a) Vespula maculifrons, with a little help from bugguide.net;
(b) They use 'em alot like honeybees, and definitely go for multiple punctures if they can;
(c) They defend the nest at distances at least 3 times what I am used to from honeybees, 20 plus feet... maybe more if you are moving around; and
(d) I react to yellowjacket venom much more and much longer than I do to bee venom, but my first yellowjacket sting in 20 years was still not very painful or swollen. My exposure to beestings probably reduced my reaction here. I think the venoms are related, but distinct substances, and people can have different reactions to one than to the other.

The cemetery people were so happy with the quick and safe retrieval of their equipment, avoiding costly exterminator fees, and getting information about how to live safely with the bugs that I got more electronic hugs and kisses than you can shake a stick at. They also released the yellowjacket email to all the other dogwalkers, so they could be careful, too.

My name was not released, because this was not a very "low profile beekeeper" thing to do, and I might regret the publicity yet. But it seems like everybody was willing to give nature a chance, to allow bugs to continue to live in their midst, and to forgive the occasional pain when human and arthropod worlds collide.

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