Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bees and Wasps: Hives, Stings, and Remedies

Because we are beekeepers in a remote, wooded area of Alaska, I have become much more attentive to all the pollinators on my plants.  For each of the last eight years we have cleared patches and paths in our  thickly wooded property, I have gotten “up close and personal” with a number of other stinging insects, too.  In fact, my husband, who was wearing Kevlar chaps while chainsawing recently, was stung multiple times just above the top of the chaps - near his groin!  Ouch!  He came bolting out of the woods like Forrest Gump ("Run, Forrest, run").

This experience, plus a “bad year” for bees and wasps here, prompted further research. (Informative insect information can be found at www.insectidentification.org, www.insectstings.co.uk and www.beespotter.org.)

The two most interesting factoids I have learned are about the venom (bee and wasp venom have different pHs) and the hives.  Both may help me (as well as readers) respond better to future trans-species altercations.

Yellow Jacket
All stinging insects are far less dangerous, even benign, when they are out and about on their own, pollinating (bees) or predating (wasps). However, they can be scary and dangerous if you disturb their nests/hives.  Not only may one sting you, it will emit a pheromone that triggers a warrior response to attract others to sting you, too!  Withdrawal is the better part of valor, followed by washing the clothes that may be imprinted with the pheromones. My husband washes his bee suit after every hive check.

WASPS:  Hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets are related.  They can sting repeatedly, without dying.  All have a near neutral venom of 6.7-6.9.  A surprising number of sources describe the venom as alkali, but not with this pH! Therefore, I am surprised by the number of home remedies touting acid, like vinegar or lemon, to alleviate the sting. But they do, and, in fact, I have tried it too.  Other logical “first responder” actions are to wash the wound(s), apply an ice pack, swallow (or for faster work, chew) a Benedryl to counter the histamine in the venom and squirt some honey, calamine lotion, or an oatmeal slurry on the wound to sooth the skin (and honey is a useful anti-infection agent, too).
Bald Faced hornet
Hornets are considered the alpha insect because few others fight an adult hornet.  Their only serious predator is the bat, since they are both nocturnal hunters.  (This year is the first I have seen hornets in serious numbers during the day).  Hornets are beneficial because they are carnivorous hunters who seek and and eat live yellow jackets, flies, and other insects you don't want nearby.  The ones I see are easy to identify by their distinctive zebra like coloring - black and white stripes.  They are longer and bulkier than other wasps.   Their hives look like gray, paper mache, biomorphic footballs with an exit hole at the bottom.  Dangling from tree branches and under the eaves of buildings, they remind me of Japanese paper lanterns.  I tend to see solitary “hunters” when we are kayaking close to shore. Perhaps they eat the flies on the lily pads.

Paper wasps' nests look like flat shower heads or shallow umbrellas in which
Paper wasps
one can see the hexagonal combs.  These small structures (which house fewer than 100 wasps) are often seen under eaves, porch roofs, and windows sills. Like hornets, they, too, prey on live insects, like caterpillars. 

Yellow jackets are the most insidious of these three types of wasps for two reasons.  One, they are such opportunistic eaters.  They are scavengers - one of the vulture of the insect world.  They will eat dead flies, but as we all know, are also attracted to the scents of sweets and protein at a backyard picnic, dropping into sodas and menacing the hamburgers. Two, their nests are built on or under ground, thus not providing the visual cue of a hanging hornet or paper wasp nest to a happy tree hugger.  It is VERY disconcerting to disturb an angry hoard in an unseen nest. 

To my dismay, I have been this person several times - once while simply raking leaves, another time chopping up a rotted and fallen tree, and a third time trying to yank out what I thought was a dead bough. It turned out to be a live one, rooted loosely into a yellow jacket's underground nesting area! My exertions caused a flurry of disgruntled  yellow jackets to fly up out of the hole, seeking the invader (me).

Besides these surprise encounters, there was one colony we tried and failed to eradicate. The wasps lived in a birch tree that was dying/rotting from the inside out. By the location, I assume yellow jackets.  Since the tree was 30 feet from our front porch, the site of previously pleasant evening meals, we were irked by their presence.  What to do?  We could see them flying in and out of a hole, but quarts of vinegar and wasp sprays accomplished little.  We inferred that the nest was deep and protected by some internal curve.  Since our summer efforts were fruitless, we waited until winter to cut down the dying tree.   When we chopped it up, we were able to see the large and protected nest.  We never would have reached it by external means and it would likely have been recolonized.    

BEES:  Bees have a stinger more barbed than wasps, so it tends to rip out of the bee, killing it, and remain in the victim, with the venom sac attached which can continue to pump out its supply of formic acid. (pH of 5- 5.5).  Home remedies should first involve trying to remove the stinger by scraping it out with a fingernail, credit card, or spoon/knife. After washing the wound, an alkaline substance, like baking soda, baking powder, or toothpaste,  has a sound scientific basis for alleviating bee sting pain.  Then, apply ice and take an anti-histamine (like Benedryl) to counter the effect of the histamine compounds in the venom.
Bumblebees  live in small hives of 100 - 400 members, usually in shady, unexpected places, like in tall grass (!) or under a shed. (I have never found the homes for our local colonies.) The bumblebees are huge, round, and soft looking. We see two types of wild bumblebees among the flowers - one with an orange butt and the other with a more familiar yellow and black coloration. They are the “eager beavers” of all the pollinators I see, out and about earliest in the morning and first after a rain. They are so large that they cannot pollinate small flowers or ones with deep throats.  They love the dangling blue flowers of borage and the open pink blossoms on fireweed. Look closely and you will see the pollen packs on their hind legs.  They look like jodhpurs, the color of whatever pollen they are collecting that day. I have seen orange, yellow, white, and blue. 

We raise four hives of Carolinian honeybees, each of which can colonize up to 60,000 members by the end of the season. By contrast to the bumblebees, the honey bees  are more like union nine-to-fivers.  They only forage when the sun is out and the wind is calm.  They especially love white clover, radish, and mustard flowers, and since clover is a beneficial nitrogen fixing source that “sweetens” crummy soil, we have planted large areas that hum with insect activity and smell sweet, like honeysuckle, in early July. We look forward to another delicious honey harvest in August.

EPI-PENS:  Because we raise bees, we bought a pair of epi-pens, which are syringes effective at arresting anaphylactic shock in the case of multiple stings.  Guess how much they costs?  $700 for two doses!!!!  And they only last one year, IF maintained at the right temperature, which is about that inside a home.  Too hot, too cold, no good.
The reason for the high price is that the producing company has a 90% monopoly in the market (although a competitor's product is supposed to be for sale in 2017).  My husband was able to find a generic product, and a coupon, which brought the price down to $507.      

HOVER FLIES: Finally, I will mention hover flies, which are neither wasps nor bees
Hover Fly
but have evolved to look like small, skinny, striped bees/wasps.  I spot them most easily on white yarrow flowers.  These are beneficial insects because they eat large quantities of aphids, which can destroy a plant by colonizing the lower sides of leaves and eating increasing numbers of holes into the surface until the plant can't produce chlorophyll anymore.  These flies don't sting.  Let 'em roam!

In conclusion, the most valuable tool for avoiding painful stings is to watch where you are going.  Don't stick your nose into a growing flower, bare foot in a clover patch,  hand into a hole in the ground, or chainsaw into a rotting tree without standing still and taking a look around, first.  Bees and wasps in a colony come and go frequently.  If you get stung, move away, and try to remove the stinger quickly, scraping with a finger nail or flat tool.  Then, pop a Benedryl, change clothes if possible, and wash the wound.  If you were stung by a bee, apply a baking soda/water slurry.  If it is a wasp/hornet sting, wash the wound, try an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) which may or may not help, and a soothing lotion, like calamine.  
With either insect, apply an ice pack to relieve pain and swelling.

As for us, we have decided that June to October is no longer an appealing time to clear trails in the woods or chop up rotted trees.  (But will do both in the off season).

Note:  I am not a doctor so please seek professional advice from your physician.

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