The Boy Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

By Cam Mather

Great blog title, eh? That outta drive tons of traffic to our site, if you’re into that whole “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.

And no, I don’t have a dragon tattoo, I’m not a web genius and I don’t beat up guys 3 times my weight. But like Steig Larsson’s character, though, I am a feminist.

But I digress.

This was my summer of hornet nests and stings.

It was mostly due to my mulching. I got a huge number of old square bales last fall and this spring, and I used them liberally to mulch garlic, which I grew in several gardens. We grew 12,000+ heads this year, so it was a big area.

Hornets in my part of the world like to build their nests underground. I’ve noticed their nests before and have disturbed them, but not with as much “success” as this year.

I discovered the first one as I was on my knees harvesting a row of garlic. I had noticed a few “bugs,” buzzing around my head, but I assumed that they were the usual deerflies, which were so plentiful in July with the absolute brutal heat. Suddenly three of them were on me simultaneously and I felt their painful stings. I bolted, flailing my arms, swearing vigorously, knocking my glasses off, and eventually ended up in the barn foundation where I made my stand and waited until I was sure I’d been left alone.

Eventually I reclaimed my glasses, missing one lens, which I’ve yet to find. Later, I threw a huge rock on the nest and it felt great. Sorry hornet lovers.

I found the second nest in the next day or two in the same area, and managed to harvest most of the garlic near it. Then I threw a rock on that nest and got the rest of the garlic a few days later.

Then a couple of weeks ago in the large garden under the wind turbine, I was rototilling some hay into the soil in my ongoing attempts to improve my soil quality. At one point there were a few rogue bugs buzzing around my head, and then two of them stung me. One of them got me on the back of the neck and it really, really hurt. I left that nest alone but a few days later I spotted another nest in a huge round bale near the raspberries where I was rototilling. Then I drove the rototiller through an old overgrown raspberry patch and before I made the next pass back I noticed the tell-tale swarm of them from another nest I’d disturbed.

So I had 3 nests that needed to be dealt with. So just after 6 a.m. the following morning, while it was still cool, I suited up with multiple layers of clothing and put on my bug hat. I took my longest tined cultivator over to the first nest and smacked in down on the area of the nest and pulled back the straw. I was horrified. There must have been 300 hornets swarming, so apparently my theory that they’d be dozy after a cool night was ill founded.


Of course I hadn’t noticed that the flake of hay I’d pulled back and left near my feet, included the top of their paper nest and pupae, and had multiple hornets attached to it. And as I stood in rapt wonder at the horror of the main nest, several of them went after my head. Luckily my bug hat prevented them from getting to me, but that didn’t stop the instinctual response my body exhibited, which was to run, arms flailing, while loudly swearing. One would not leave me alone and stop buzzing. By the time I got to the back porch door I’d had enough, and when I pulled off the bug hat I discovered that one was actually stuck in the hat! I took great glee in snuffing out that assassin!

Once again, I had managed to lose my glasses in the commotion, and it took me 20 minutes to find them in the tall grass nearby. Then I went after the nest in the raspberry canes and got them worked up. Finally I took a long piece of scrap lumber and started plunging it into the big round bale nest. Man, were they pissed!

There was a black plastic pot on the ground near the nest that I toss rocks and stones into when I dislodge them in the garden. As I stood watching the whirling mass of yellow and black rage near the bale I kept hearing this weird tapping sound, like something was being thrown at a hard surface. I finally figured out it was the hornets attacking the black plastic pot. Obviously they thought that the black pot was the cause of the disturbance. I think that they are so used to the black bears in my area disturbing their nests, that they’ve become conditioned to attack anything black.

And there I stood in my black bug hat, like a moron. Luckily I was outside of their “rage range” and they didn’t go after me. It’s very much like a car accident when you disturb one of these nests. You know you shouldn’t just stand there and watch but you should get the heck out of there, but until one actually goes after you, your feet are like concrete.

In “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” I discuss the benefits of mulching… moisture retention, decay of organic material into the soil to increase water retention and build humus. I also talk about the downsides, which in my experience has been the increase in pest activity that the sheltered mulch provides. I have found slugs and ear wigs are the usual suspects, but this year I have added hornets.

I will have to seriously think about my use of mulch in the future. I love it and with a sandy soil that doesn’t hold water well, it’s indispensable for me. But that whole hornet’s nest factor is starting to loom large. I am wondering if you build up this venom in your system and one day it just takes one more sting to push you past the tipping point. I like to kid myself that being stung just makes me stronger, and of course, reduces the severity of the arthritis I’m starting to get in my hands. But I think I’m kidding myself.

The one thing hornets’ nests are good for is heart defect detection. Because really, when you go from being in a zone of contentment and peace while harvesting garlic, to excruciating pain and a full “being chased by zombies” sprint for 200 yards, you gotta know your heart is doing OK. But since these darn stings ache for days, I’m thinking there’s gotta be a better way.

Michelle’s Experience: Cam’s theory about the colour black and these hornets certainly seems to be valid. The other day as I walked back from our (very dry) pond, I must have disturbed a hornet’s nest in the ground. As I walked towards the house I felt a pin prick on the back of my left leg. I assumed it was a prickly plant of some sort but as I went to brush it off, I realized it was a hornet, trying to sting me through my black pant leg! Then I felt a sharp pain on the back of my right leg, and sure enough, there was another hornet attempting to sting me there! I don’t think they were very successful, but even so, I have a large patch of angry red skin on the backs of both legs! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that life in the country is always fun!

3 Responses to “The Boy Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”

  • I actually mulched with straw this year and I have several bales just sitting around waiting for me to do something with. Several years ago I was stung by a lone hornet and then again a few weeks later. When I got stung a third time within a month I had a reaction that sent me to the emergency room. So Yes Cam. You can reach a tipping point and the reaction requires fast action. I try to remember to carry benedryl with me in the summer. If I get stung and I am not close to a hospital it can help extend the time I need to get there. BTW. Dealing with those nest after dark is the safest time to deal with them. Plus you get most of them.

  • Cat:

    Flag the hives by day and use a torch or weed burner at night on them when they are all in the ground. Spray pyritheum on the bale nest.

  • So glad you shared this article. We will soon be harvesting (digging) our potato crop. We mulch with hay/straw. I had noticed some bees up there, but assumed they were just near the garden area. We will be extra careful!!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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