Yellow Jacket Tragedy

By Ol’ Drone

In early August there was a bee sting fatality reported in Johnstown, New York. A man brush-hogging a field was stung by many “ground bees.” Honeybees don’t nest in the ground, but yellow jackets do. It was learned that he was allergic to bee stings and forgot to bring with him his EpiPen® bee sting kit.

Yellow Jackets Everywhere

Yellow jacket population increases usually occur in September but since this year everything is about a month early, so are the yellow jackets. Unlike gentle honeybees that are vegetarians, the aggressive yellow jackets are carnivores and feed on other insects. This is why they show up when the delicious aroma of hot dogs and hamburgers floats in the breeze from the grill. They also have a “sweet tooth” and go after the sugar in your ice tea or soda pop. Remind the kids to check for yellow jackets in their beverages, especially if the drink has been left on the table for a while.

Types of Yellow Jackets

There are two types of yellow jackets that build their populations late summer and early fall. The native, most common type makes its nest in the ground and is actually smaller than a honeybee. The other type is one inch—double the size of the honeybee—and is native to Europe. Both of these pests are shiny, bright yellow with black stripes. The other serious pest at the picnic may be the white-faced hornet. This is a large, shiny black bee with white markings on the head. These are the bees that build those big round gray nests hanging from a branch. Both of these bees are aggressive and can sting multiple times, unlike the honeybee.

Honeybee Stings

It is unlikely that honeybees create a problem unless the picnic is in a beekeeper’s yard. Honeybees don’t want to sting, as they lose their life, but they will use their stinger to protect their hive. Unless you threaten them while honeybees are foraging in the flower garden, they usually are very gentle.

Despite the hysteria associated with honeybee stings, they do not cause a medical crisis for 99% of our population. The honeybee has a barbed stinger that continues to inject venom under your skin for a couple of minutes. The best advice is to get the stinger out as fast as possible to prevent injection of the “full dose.”

Fortunately, many people develop a tolerance to stings and their reaction is much reduced after frequent, repeated stings. Most people do not experience any symptoms other than a burning sensation for two minutes, a red spot, and localized swelling. When a person accidentally receives multiple stings there will be significant swelling but a healthy adult usually recovers fully after 300 to 500 stings. Occasionally a mild allergic reaction may cause itching, a rash, or light-headed feeling and these symptoms usually respond to antihistamine pills.

The dangerous type of reaction is a drop in blood pressure and any difficulty breathing. This may be an anaphylactic reaction and requires immediate medical attention. Those hypersensitive to bee venom should carry the pocket bee sting kit EpiPen®, available by prescription. Treatments to desensitize highly sensitive individuals are available from specialized allergists. Treatment is for the specific type of bee: yellow jacket, hornet, or honeybee.

Don’t expect any problems from gentle honeybees but be careful with the “picnic bees.”

  • email