Stepping on a Hornet’s Nest

By Cam Mather

So what scares you more, hornets or bears? I have to contend with both here at our little piece of paradise in the bush, and I’ll take bears anytime. I don’t say that with any sort of male bravado, in fact it’s the opposite. I’m afraid of hornets. They really hurt when they sting and once you encounter them there’s usually no time for negotiation or contemplation. You know what they’re going to do, they’re going to come after you and it’s going to hurt – real bad.

This spring we had a mother and baby black bear in the back yard near the raspberry bushes. They meandered around and ate clover and were generally pretty mellow. Eventually they sauntered back into the woods. I see signs of bears in the woods all the time. Most often it’s large rocks they’ve turned over looking for grubs and insects.

Yellow jackets like to make their nests in burrows just under the ground around here and they often like to make them near rotten hay bales. I always have lots of old round bales that I’ve scrounged from local farmers that I eventually spread around to beef up my soil. A few years ago I was rolling one of these bales and disturbed a nest. The yellow jackets were on my head so fast it was terrifying. They are really aggressive. I got stung about four times, including a couple of times on one ear. I’ve never had my ears pierced but I can imagine that it must have felt like this, only the jabbing pain didn’t go away for hours.

Yesterday I was weeding strawberries and stepped on another nest. I disturbed them but I didn’t realize it until later. I noticed them all hyped up and buzzing around the entrance, so I stayed clear. About 10 minutes later I was near the nest and one of them stung me on the temple. Seriously, I’m obviously a wimp, but it was like someone had jabbed a needle beside my eye. I admit that having learned my lesson after the time 4 of them jumped me, I ran like hell until I was clear. Contrary to what my wife likes to claim, I did not scream like a girl as I was making my exit. I may have uttered a curse word or two.

This really bugged me, especially since I was wearing my yellow gardening shirt. I was given some surplus yellow shirts years ago and since I don’t like wearing sunscreen and these are long sleeved I like to wear them for gardening. So there I was in my yellow shirt. Don’t you think the wasp might have seen me and said “Oh look, a fellow yellow-clad comrade, I’ll give him a pass. Perhaps he’s just a big version of me.” No go. This one said dam the torpedoes, this one gets it.

Now whenever I get stung I try and look on the bright side. I saw a documentary once on people with severe arthritis using bee stings, which they swear helped them. Can you imagine grabbing a bee everyday and getting it to sting you? So I figure every time I get stung it’s helping to keep the arthritis at bay. But really, I think this is grasping at straws. I don’t relish getting stung.

A fellow I know got stung last summer when he disturbed some stinging insect nest (I’m not sure whether it was bees, wasps or hornets). He had never had a reaction to a sting before but this time he began to feel ill and the next thing you know he was going into anaphylactic shock. In my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” I suggest that if you live in the country it might be worth investing in an “Epi-pen” in case anyone ever has this reaction. They only last a few years and cost $100, so do you think I have one? It’s on my list.

But back to the bear comparison. I make a lot of noise whenever I am walking in the bush and Morgan the Wonder Dog is usually with me, running ahead and giving bears lots of notice that I’m coming. As long I don’t startle one, or get between a mother and baby I figure I’m all right. If I do encounter one, I’m going to make myself as big as I can, and walk slowly away from it. At 5’8” I doubt I’m going to really frighten a bear, but I’m hoping the bear would know it’s going to have a bit of fight on its hands. I don’t think I could do the “curl up and play dead” thing. Granted our bears are all black bears here, so it’s not like I’d be taking on a grizzly. But I’ve heard the stories from people who’ve been chewed on by a bear – no thanks. I’m going to my chances getting a few shots to the bear’s nose. At that point, what have you got to lose? So as I walk through my woods, I have next to no fear of bears.

Hornets though – they scare me. I don’t like stepping on their nests and do not like it when they sting my head. It’s always my face they go after. It amazes me that these small insects with their relatively small brains and questionable eyesight, know to immediately go for a human’s face. It must be in their DNA that their stings are going to be that much more effective on someone’s ear or temple.

In our place in the woods I do not fear being mugged. I do not fear a car jumping the sidewalk and plowing me down. I do not fear a stray bullet from a drive by shooting (although during deer hunting season I stay close to the house) but when I’m working around the garden that stinging insect potential is always there. My own personal bogeyman, wearing a yellow jacket. Better order my Epipen.

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3 Responses to “Stepping on a Hornet’s Nest”

  • Wow Neil… you HAVE been lucky!!! Those are quite the stories!

  • Neil B.:

    I will take bees anytime over bears. Bears scare me big time!!

    I must be blessed or I was a bee keeper in a former life. I have been stung but not very often. I remember walking behind my father’s baler when I was 9 years old. My sister on one side and my friend on the other. The baler went through a bee’s nest (which I didn’t know at the time). So my sister and friend both go running off…I then run after then yelling “where are you going?”… I had no idea that they both got stung multiple times whereas I never received anything.
    Fast forward to an 19 year old. I decided to pick some cherries along an old fence line. Lots of brush, thorns, stones and an old cedar fence. Well I found the perfect spot standing on a cedar log with lots of cherries but had to go very slowly past the 2” thorns to this “perfect spot”. I felt like I had struck gold and had half filled my bucket (and my stomach) when I looked down. Crawling over my left work boot were about 50 bees (I couldn’t see my work boot toe there were so many bees). I almost panicked but knew I would be torn to shreds going through the thorns…so I remained calm and inched my way out. If activity increased I would wait until “the gang” was calm again. It took me almost 15 minutes to inch out but again never got stung or cut. I figured the bees had a nest inside the old cedar log.
    So yes to bees but keep me clear of bears!

  • No one is safe. One of these incorrigible little dudes stung me on the inside of my leg once. It was 15 minutes into a car trip and I was wearing long pants. Small mercy that I wasn’t driving.

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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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