We have this lovely Japanese maple tree that has been much overrun by weeds and looking pretty slovenly. People who love Japanese maples probably see our tree and wish there was an administrative department in place to remove such trees from their abusive homes. I hate to think I’m not worthy of such a glorious arboreal treasure, so I went out Saturday afternoon to separate the undesirable plants from the desirable ones. Elitist segregation is rampant in the plant world; dandelions and their ilk bring a bad element to the otherwise peaceful abode of a Japanese maple.
I was doing pretty well – probably ¾ of the way finished – when I suddenly realized I was surrounded by an inordinate number of flying insects. A second or two later, my brain acknowledged, based on the flying pattern*, that the insects were not flies but were, in fact, yellow-jackets.
The maple is surrounded on all sides by railroad ties (oh, how I hate them) and evidently one of the ties had rotted enough to form the perfect entry into a yellow-jacket nest. I obviously disturbed it with my trowel and was now being checked out by the recon team. None had alighted upon my person, which I took as a good sign; it meant they weren’t angry, only concerned. I slowly stood up and backed away, all the while watching a replay in my head of a summer day in 1975 when I found out first-hand what a hundred bee stings feels like…
…it was at a place called Haller Lake, near my childhood home. I was nine years old and had accompanied my stepbrother Rob, seven years my senior, to the lake on a fishing excursion. My role was simple: shut the fuck up, stay the hell out of the way, and don’t get wet. He didn’t say a thing about not getting myself covered in pissed-off yellow-jackets, mind you.
At this same time, Rob’s Boy Scout troop was doing a recycling drive. Rob had been collecting glass bottles like crazy, and I had been trying to impress him by helping however I could. I was constantly keeping my eyes peeled for discarded beer and pop bottles. Every bottle, in my mind, made me just a bit cooler to my older brother. One such bottle – a Coors bottle as I recall – was just on the other side of a tall chain link fence from where my brother stood fishing from the beach of Haller Lake. I pointed out the bottle to him and informed him I would go get it for his recycling drive. He muttered something dismissive and off I went to retrieve the bottle.
I was too small to climb the high fence, but just the right size to fit under it in one particular spot where dogs had obviously dug their way to freedom at some point. I was half under the fence when Rob noticed what I was up to and called to me to come back. I reiterated that I was getting the beer bottle for him, to which he replied that he could see the bottle had a broken neck and was thus useless to him. But by then, I was under the fence and picking up the bottle.
The next thing I remember was a buzzing, black cloud surrounding me, followed immediately by countless scorching stabs of pain. There had been a hive inside the bottle!
I dove under the fence, scrambling for what I was sure was my very life, but was stopped halfway under as the tail of my shirt became caught on the underside of the chain-link fence, creating a convenient gateway directly to my bare back, suitable to fit an entire hive of yellow-jackets!
Needless to say, that put an end to my brother’s day of fishing. After ridding me of my stinging assailants, he took me home, told me to get in the bath tub and soak, and called my mom at work to find out what to do. She came home and took me to the doctor, who estimated I had been stung upwards of 100 times and told me that my back had suffered most of the attack. He also informed me that it was almost certain that I had acquired an allergy to bee venom. Being only nine, I opted out of the ouchy blood test, especially considering my doctor’s assertions that bee venom allergy tests were pretty much hit-and-miss anyway.
I'm happy to say that to this day, I have not been stung again. I plan to keep it that way, so last night I went out after the sun had set and, aiming for the location of the hole from which I’d seen several yellow-jackets emerge earlier that day, I emptied an entire can of RAID Wasp &Hornet Killer.
Now, for those who don’t know, yellow-jackets can make their nests in obvious places out in the open like under awnings and hanging from rafters, but they can also make them inside hollow logs or even in holes in the ground. Because of this, I had no way of knowing if the railroad tie was hollowed-out and harboring the nest or if it served merely as an entrance to an underground hive, thus my decision to just unload an entire can in their front door.
This afternoon I overturned the tie to find it had indeed rotted out inside. Bits of destroyed nest were scattered about and only three living yellow-jackets remained. Their movements were laborious and they could not fly. They seemed to be working at rebuilding the hive, the three of them, even as the poison was slowly racking their bodies. I felt like a terrible monster just for a moment. It was odd. They’re nasty, stinging insects but I couldn’t bear to watch them crawl about in agony. I squashed them. It was them or me, after all.
*Yellow-jackets do this little hover-bob-and-weave thing that flies are incapable of.