I pissed off a blizzard of yellow jackets the other day. They were the Mask of Death rising up without any forewarning or expectation. The Grim Reaper swung out his scythe in warning as I jumped high, and we both whirled away in opposite directions. Death by surprise with the horror of a thousand toxic stings. Except it wasn’t my time to pass on through to the other side…yet.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in early October 2012, on the 2nd of October to be exact. I stepped outside into the backyard to help clean up some trash and debris. I’ve been staying with my friends Gabriel and Joy in Shoreline, just north of Seattle, as they settle into their “new” home. The backyard was a glorious overgrown wood with tall, beautiful trees and thick bushes bunched around an urban meadow of shaggy grass and dandelions gone to see. In the corner set an old, abandoned metal garbage can. The lid sat somewhat ajar. Bits of trash hung out over the rim. One long, blue length of twine spooled down and out and lay snarled in weeds and sticks.
Behind me on the upstairs balcony Gabriel and his little boy, the one I call “Young Master,” were cleaning up, too. They watched from above. And they just as easily could’ve been out in the yard, too. Young Master could’ve been walking right there with me to peek inside the old garbage can with the same curiosity that possessed me. After all, he was out there messin’ around a couple days earlier over the weekend.
I carried two bags of trash and one of compost. Without much thought I strode up to the ugly old can squatting among the bushes on the edge of the woods. My hand reached out, grabbed the lid, and lifted.
My eyes caught a quick view of what looked like gray paper. Immediately, a monster swarm of bigass yellow jackets rolled out in a thick curling cloud. These were plump, end-of-summer demons all fattened up to die in another month or so. They came together in the air like a biological chainsaw, like a living robot from the Transformer movies, and they were enraged. When I lifted up the lid, apparently I’d ripped their nest apart.
For a moment so brief yet so long I stood there on hyperalert seeing the massed swarm of buzzing yellow jackets pouring out of the can into the air around me. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, way slooooww mooooshunnn. I felt as if I was inside The Matrix movie.
My hands uncurled. I dropped the garbage can lid, which fell back upon the can tighter than it was before. I dropped the two bags of trash. I dropped the one bag of compost. I leapt into the air, spun around on a tight pivot, and sailed out of there. I raced out into the yard as they chased after me.
A snap decision was immediate. If they were soon to be all over me, I would not run back inside the house where other people including a little boy were. There was a floppy bamboo fence sagging at one end. I was determined to slam into it and bulldoze it down as I ran toward the street. Failing that, I would zigzag back across the yard and toward the gate on the side closer to the angry wasps.
A quick glance back confirmed me the swarm had spiraled back to their hive. I kept on running like Hell opened up behind me. I ran faster than Usain Bolt did in the 2012 Olympics. I must’ve. I know I did. And I barreled inside the house so fast I slammed that sliding glass door shut and whirled around to see that old garbage can engulfed in a cloud of yellow jackets buzzing to get back in.
I laughed with relief and ran upstairs to where Gabriel and the Young Master had observed wide-eyed incredulousness.
“Man, you ran fast!” Gabriel said. “Yelling and screaming, too.”
“Yeah!” shouted Young Master. “You were screaming, Will-Yum!”
Oh, yeah. I made a sound I’d never heard myself quite make before. As I whipped around and race away I shouted, “Yi! Yi! Yi! Yi! Yi! Yi!”
Fortunately, I never got stung. I was sooo lucky! Not one sting! Yellow jackets are highly aggressive. They’re wasps, not bees, so they don’t lose their stingers. They sting over and over again and bite, too. Their bites are strong enough to chomp wood apart and rip off chunks of animal muscle.
Yellow jacket venom is also strong and painful. Thank goodness I’m not allergic to bees and wasps. I know people who are. And while I’ve been stung by maybe a dozen at most, I don’t know how my body would react to being stung my hundreds. Allergies with anaphylaxis can be triggered even in those without any history of allergies.
Yes, hundreds. There were maybe 300 to 500 yellow jackets? No, a lot more. Quite likely a thousand at least. Many of the really large hives with a lot of room to grow (such as inside a large garbage can!) will host tens of thousands by late summer and early autumn.
The can is still there. Nighttime temperatures are down in the 40s and 50s already in the lowlands here around Puget Sound. It’s just a matter of time become Old Man Winter comes down from the mountains with layers of frost. The metal garbage can, once hot from the summer sun, will become a frozen coffin. Nature has a way.
William Dudley Bass
Thursday 4 October 2012
Note: For an earlier and different kind of encounter with these insects, see “Yellow Jackets Swarming Ants” @ http://williamdudleybass.com/yellow-jackets-swarming-ants.
Copyright © 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.