cartoon rendering of a happy looking stinging insect

My former impression of hornets and yellowjackets.

            The things we learn to avoid early in life are many - so numerous, in fact, that most of these perils fade from our consciousness, until a situation unfolds and we draw upon those foggy admonishments with a sudden sense of dread.  Growing up in a semi-rural village, in a by-gone age, when each day we were ejected from the house without the benefit of ‘play dates’ or helmets.  We were cautioned to avoid strangers, rusty nails, playing with matches, and be wary of certain critters.  Chief among the latter were rabid dogs and racoons, bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets.  Therefore, unfamiliar dogs were sometimes assumed to be potentially rabid, but usually they were friendly and had wandered over from some other part of the village.  I never knew anyone who actually had been bitten by anything rabid.  Bees and wasps seemed to be everywhere and being stung by a honey bee, while traipsing through the grass barefoot, was an annual occurrence and just part of summer.  I have never been stung by a wasp, yet I still give them wide berth to this day.   Hornets seemed to be almost mythological in the stories I heard from people who encountered them, yet I have only seen them in cartoons, on nature programs, or as a big round nest high up in a tree.  In almost seventy years on this planet, bashing about yards and undergrowth, yellow jackets have never bothered me.  They have flown by, and even landed upon me.  I began to believe in my own myth – that I had some peaceful aura about me which communicated to these supposedly fearsome creatures that I was not a threat.  That changed two weeks ago.  I was attacked!  Their sting is as powerful and painful as those apocryphal tales foretold.    

            During my regular yard beautification process with the lawn mower, an old railroad tie that forms a border with the lush turf and a flower garden/weed patch/nature preserve by the back door steps, gets struck by the noisy machine.  This happens every time.  Over the years many of our cats have used this very same railroad tie as a scratching post.  Unbeknownced to me, yellow jackets apparently decided this disintegrating tie would be the perfect place to build one of their underground condominiums.  Well aware the real estate market is very “hot” right now, I was nevertheless perplexed as to why they chose this busy location.  In defiance of zoning, and just good neighborly communication, they set to work, and the first indication the project was underway was their shocking attack.  Their long-term goal was probably a permanent home, acquired through adverse possession, and in no time the whole neighborhood would go down the tubes.

            The encounter, which commenced with a sudden intense burning pain on my neck, and an awareness of buzzing insects all around me, was followed by shock and momentary disbelief.  I quickly regained my senses and began swatting at the angry buggers, while jumping about, and quickly pushing the lawn mower away from the scene.  This maneuver is universally known as “the bug dance.”  It rapidly became obvious that this action was not getting me away from the swirling horde, so I abandoned the mower and ran across the yard in the opposite direction.  This situation would not stand – retaliation was in order!  

            Excavating under the kitchen sink, I located a large can of Raid Ant & Roach Killer, with its primary feature being the ability to shoot a stream of insecticide up to twelve feet.  In years past this product had proved useful in knocking wasps out of the air, and killing them rapidly – faster than the product specifically formulated for that expressed purpose, while leaving strange splatter patterns across walls and windows.  So equipped, I launched a vigorous counterattack!  More yellow jackets boiled out of a hole underneath the railroad tie, as well as out of a large rotted area on top, but I was able to stun them into docility and they surrendered.  I then proceeded to soak the hole and the wood.  ‘That should teach them a lesson,’ I mused to myself, as I observed a total lack of activity at the scene of the crime.   Mission accomplished! 

            The tale of my heroics was retold to my wife, Tammy, while I rubbed a balm of CBD ointment upon my neck wound.  It still hurt mightily, but not as bad as before.  Returning to the lawn mowing that remained, I felt smug in the knowledge of my human superiority over insects. 

             The following week I was back to mindlessly cutting the grass.  Actually, mindless is not the proper adjective since my back-and-forth route is on a bias to the house and lot line one week, and a different bias angle the next cut, which results in a satisfying and professional looking diamond pattern in the yard.  It is possible I suffer from a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I do not give it too much thought because that is the proper way to cut grass!  (I also employ specific techniques when shoveling snow, washing dishes, folding clothes, or any other of a number of important tasks, which are best completed with only the most rigorous attention to detail.)  Last week I had eradicated the yellow jackets.  A repeat performance was inconceivable, and had not registered as being even a remote possibility.

            With nary a care in the world, I tended to the grass-cutting chore, making sure I was following the faint tracks left from the job two weeks prior.  By the time the mowing routine approaches the backdoor of the house, there is a sense of accomplishment, for the job is almost eighty percent done.  Around the cement pad at the base of the back steps I went – bumped into the railroad tie bordering the flower garden, as usual, straightened up the machine for the run along the edge of the tie border and toward the the white picket fence out front.  BAM!  A blinding burning pain on the side of my right knee, and instant recognition of what this meant.  Stung once again by a yellow jacket!  I did the slap-hop-run high-steppin’ bug dance, while still pushing the mower.  As before, I was not exiting the area fast enough, and had abandon the green and yellow Yard Man (Powered by Honda) mid-hop, and dash across the yard while still flailing at bugs both real and imagined.  Once again equipped with my can of Raid, I emptied the entire contents into the hole and surrounding area.  The yellow jackets disappeared, and I completed the yard duties while hobbling on my painful knee, and feeling rather chastened by the whole episode.  Several applications of our miracle ointment made the pain tolerable during the evening.

             While cleaning the cat litter boxes the next morning, I gazed over to the scene of insect carnage from the day before.  To my astonishment, I observed that the surviving critters apparently had been very busy overnight!  A large hole was excavated under the old railroad tie.  The drainage gravel was removed, and yellow jackets are flying freely about, and in-and-out of the cavern entrance!  How flying insects could move gravel was beyond me, and it was accomplished at night when they should have been sleeping, or dead!  But the pile ejected from the entrance was a testament to that very fact.  Here I thought ants were the miracle workers of the exoskeleton set, but now I came to the full appreciation that if it has six legs, and works in groups, some serious stuff can go down rather quickly!

            Apparently, emptying a can of Raid on these beasts merely served as a temporary solution to the problem.  What I required was a permanent fix, so fire and explosives were the first remedies that came to mind.  Pouring gasoline down the hole, and setting it alight, had a satisfyingly theatrical feel to it.  However, the entrance was only about a foot from the house.  Burning down our domicile, as collateral damage in order to exterminate some insects, was not something I was comfortable with. Also, I did not care to be the punchline for some YouTube video, or on local TV as ‘the idiot story’ at the end of a broadcast.  M-80 firecrackers would be fun, but I doubted they would do the trick, and besides, I had none in my possession at the moment.  My mind then wandered to pouring cement on the area, and creating a sarcophagus over the colony, much like what the Russians built to seal off the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl meltdown, but I suspected the yellow jackets would simply tunnel under all that and would be back in business in no time.  What to do?

            I decided to e-mail a friend with my dilemma, and throw in a few embellishments to further pique his interest.  A lot of his ideas for projects, and solutions to problems, come from YouTube.  I could research that for myself, but it felt more satisfying to share my misery with a friend.  Five minutes later the phone rang and he had checked the video “experts” and concluded I had been doing the right thing – spraying.  I thanked him for his investigation and rapid response, then reiterated that I was dubious as to the long-term effectiveness of this less dramatic course of action.  Boulders were probably being removed as we spoke, and the cavern was most likely being hardened like Cheyenne Mountain, where America’s defense headquarters are located.  No, I was looking for the ‘final solution.’  My friend wished me well.

            Though conscious of the problem at hand, I did not waste a whole lot of time pondering the situation during the other activities of the day.  There was trepidation whenever entering or exiting the backdoor, for the yellow insects continued to fly about, but by nightfall the sense of urgency had dissipated.

            That evening, before retiring to bed, I decided to sit on the back steps and relax. This is something I frequently do on nice evenings.  The cats enjoy my company, and it gives me the opportunity to gaze at the night sky, watch the lightning bugs, listen to the crickets and katydids, and otherwise space-out on the nocturnal world observable from my small vantage point.  Eddie snarfed around in the yard, leaping at unseen objects, or at Leroy or Zane.  His brother Zane skulked about, appearing and disappearing at random.  Leroy stayed close to me, observing the others, and per his normal routine, jumped down to the railroad tie to sharpen his claws and act cool.  As he executed this typical maneuver I thought that maybe it is not a prudent move.  Suddenly he bolted from the tie, and leaped out into the grass about ten feet away, before stopping and casting a wary eye toward his favorite scratching object. He then cautiously slinked even farther away.  Eddie came crashing out of the peony bushes, paused to intently look toward the railroad tie, then cruised over to see what Leroy was doing.  My curiosity was piqued, for it appeared Leroy and Eddie detected something in the darkness that I could not.  A flashlight should rectify that.

            I went into the house to retrieve one, and not just any flashlight, but my trusty old-style chrome-plated-metal-strong-enough-to-bash-someone’s-head-in style flashlight, which takes multiple D-size batteries, and can cast a beam of light one hundred feet or more.  That baby resides conveniently in a drawer in the kitchen.  I checked to make sure the batteries had not died, and headed toward the back door.  Its heft gave me a false sense of security when confronting the unknown.  A distinctive high-pitched sound of an angry insect instantly put me on high alert.  This was not the bothersome whine of a mosquito buzzing around one’s head.  No, this sound had more substance and menace, to which the prehistoric part of my brain commanded both fight and flight.  I hastened my stride toward the backdoor, while flailing my arms about – just in case that would actually dissuade the phantom from doing whatever it had in mind. I felt the distinctive sudden burning pain of a sting on my right butt cheek!  Momentarily I was stunned by the incredulity of the attack.  In my house, through my clothes, on that part of my anatomy!  Really?!

            Regaining my senses, I realized I did not want this thing in the house and hoped it would follow me out the backdoor.  Heading in that direction, while involuntarily doing the “bug dance”, I fell through the backdoor and startled the cats milling around the steps.  A quick beam from the flashlight showed the frenzied activity around the insect hole.  The cats were giving the area a wide berth, and I hastened back into the house before I got stung again, or let any more of the angry beasts inside.

             That was enough excitement for one day, and I decided it was time to retire to bed.  Trying to relax in order to fall asleep, while being hyper-vigilant for the tell-tale whine of incoming fighters was not a recipe for sound slumber.  Then the phone rang.  It was Tammy’s sister Melody, calling to report on her oral surgery earlier in the day.  After getting all the gory details, I expressed sympathy, and then casually remarked that her travails put my getting stung in the ass by a yellowjacket pale by comparison.  At this she perked up, and asked for the whole story – which I happily recounted, sparing no details. 

            Melody remarked that, by coincidence, a similar thing had just happened to her son Marty, a brave Marine veteran of Desert Storm, and a park ranger for the past several decades.  He had come over to her house to cut her grass, and she monitored his progress from her deck.  For some reason her attention was diverted for a moment, and when she turned back, the lawn tractor was sitting in the middle of the yard, and Marty was nowhere to be seen.  She called out to see if he was still there, and if he was okay.  Marty emerged from behind his pickup truck, down at the end of the driveway.  Minutes later the whole story came out.  He had driven over a nest of stinging insects, which promptly swarmed, attacked, and stung him.  The tractor was not moving fast enough to outrun them, so he had jumped off it and had ran to his truck for protection. Sadly, Melody had missed Marty’s ‘bug dance.’  Being the professional that he is, Marty identified the culprits as “underground hornets,” and Melody concluded that was most likely what I had encountered as well.

            “All well and good,” I replied, “but what does one do to get rid of them?”  Then I promptly launched into my plans for fire, explosions, followed by entombment in concrete.  She laughed, and said those were the very things Marty had mentioned, but in her vast knowledge of all things gardening, the real solution would be a liquid product named Sevin.  Years ago, she encountered a similar problem, only the hornets erupted from a compost pile she was turning with a pitchfork.  Four ounces of the stuff, added to a gallon of water, would do the trick.  “If that’s the case,” “then I am using ten to twelve ounces!” I replied.  “I want these things gone!”  She chuckled, and stated that was Marty’s response as well.

            A trip the next day to a nearby big-box store secured the bottle of toxin, plus a can of hornet spray which was “guaranteed to shoot a stream twenty-eight feet, and kill on contact”.  I wanted to cover all contingencies.  The bottle said it would kill over five hundred common pests, yet was safe to use around pets.  Somehow that really did not sound plausible, but, no worries, I would keep our cats away during the extermination campaign.  That there were five hundred “common pests” was news to me, and significantly higher than the number listed of perils from childhood.  I felt downright ignorant, and cheated, that I did not know this.  The label also advised that when applying on hornets, to do so at night, or early in the morning, when they were less active.  Having had a nocturnal sting to my behind, “less active” was a matter of perspective.

            Night fell, and Tammy inquired as to why I was not outside dumping poison down the hole.  My straightforward answer was “fear!”  I had not come up with a proper suit of armor.  Upon hearing my dilemma, she suggested using a pair of waders she had gotten us for splashing around creeks while looking for old paving bricks.  That sounded like a capital idea.  A heavy vinyl raincoat with a hood would be just the ticket as well, and I had a pair of safety googles, plus a hat, leather gloves, and a towel to wrap around my face and neck.  I should be properly equipped for the task ahead, and vowed to do it in the morning.

             It took almost half an hour to locate the gear and get suited up for the impending conflict.  As it turned out, I also had a pair of bib rain-pants to go along with my raincoat.  Dawn’s early light illuminated the field of valor.  No hornets were in evidence around the hole.  The bottle contained more than enough poison liquid to mix up two buckets of super-extra-strength insect eradicator.  I boldly marched over to the cavern entrance and dumped the contents of the first pail down the hole.  It disappeared immediately!  ‘How deep, or big, can this hive be?’ I wondered.  Considering this conundrum was a waste of time, so I dumped the second bucket down the hole.  Milky fluid temporarily flooded the area, then slowly drained underground.  One or two hornets emerged, but they did not seem to have much spunk in them. Not wanting to tempt fate, I vacated the area.  In a way, I was a bit disappointed by the total absence of a counterattack by the hornets.  The whole thing was so anti-climactic, and was over in less than three minutes.

            Leroy licked a big wound on his leg where he had been stung two nights before, and all the cats cast wary glances toward the now vanquished hornet colony, as they entered or exited the backdoor.  The next morning a racoon arrived and dug the whole mess up.  I was not sure if it found anything, and I did not care.  Pride filled my chest once again, as I had finally eliminated a wily foe, and made our house safe once again!  Just for good measure, I suited up again, and dumped another bucket of my ‘hornet-B-gone’ concoction down the hole.  Then I filled it with stones and sealed the crevasse with several large rocks.  Lesson learned – the admonishments of my youth were not fables!  They were stories passed down from the ages, from painful experience.   I have renewed my vigilance for rabid dogs and racoons!



Popular Posts