Chapter Five: I Am Attacked By Wasps
August 6, 2008 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Why did the wasps attack me? What are these wasps? And am I a marked person? Shall I seek revenge?

I was walking home from getting a pedicure late yesterday afternoon, and walked past the local wasp nest. It's a hole in the ground, surrounded by little stones. When I first spotted it some weeks ago, I thought it was some sort of rat or snake hole, but noticed a few wasps lazily drifting in and out. I thought, well, nice, circle of life, pollinating the world, etc. etc.

So yesterday, I walked by and thought, "Hmm, it's a bit busy at Ye Olde Wasp Hole and HEY OW OW OW OW OW OW" -- I was stung by one, and then immediately stung by several others, (six stings in all), even as I walked briskly away. Even a quarter of a mile away, I was buzzed by a rather angry wasp. Criminy!

The stings were more hot and pinchy at the time, and then raised welts appeared, which we treated with ice and vinegar. They're now a bit itchy, although the redness has subsided.

Now, I was wearing dark clothes, and no perfume per se (although there was lotion used on my legs at the pedicure place).

My husband (after cautiously examining me for any errant stingy things) took a quick look online and announced that if one swats at a wasp and causes it to sting, it leaves a scent that attracts other wasps to attack (sort of a "O HAI HERE IZ SUCKER 2 BITEZ" sign) -- is this true? Is there a half-life to this scent? Another wasp had a go at me this morning (I was far away from the wasp hole) and I wonder if the scent is still clinging to my backpack.

And we did they attack me? Was I just unlucky? I didn't see anything like a kid nearby who may have poked at the hole, or maybe a very bad dog. And what sort of wasps build holes in the ground surrounded by stone defenses, anyway? The wasps of my Southern California youth were paper wasps that built nests under the eaves.

Lastly -- should I contact the city about this (I live in Walnut Creek, CA)? The wasp hole is next to a curb on a street near a well-used paved trail. Luckily I am not allergic to stings, but what if someone else came along who wasn't so lucky? What if it were a small child or an elderly person? My preference is to leave the hole alone, but is it a threat?

Description of the creatures:
:: yellow & black bands
:: live in a hole in the ground surrounded by lots of carefully-arranged pebbles


Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever I walk past a nail salon, I smell a STRONG odor/smell coming from there. In fact, whenever people are painting nails, I can smell that too. I HATE it...and I bet wasps have even better senses of smell if they can communicate via scents. So wasps might hate that smell. You might have just offended them with the smell.

I might have been a wasp.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:23 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was stung 1 million times by a swarm of ground wasps when I was a wee lad. It was summer and I didn't have a shirt on. I was stung so many times on my chest and back that I had to sleep on pillows for a week.

IMO these ground wasps are a menace. Take revenge with extreme prejudice with my blessing.

Honey bees are from Baby Jesus but wasps are from Satan and not in a cool way.
posted by ian1977 at 5:28 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Everything you described screamed yellow jacket to me except I didn't know know they lived in holes in the ground until I searched and found this. I think that is what you are dealing with and there are tips on killing them in the link.
posted by DanielDManiel at 5:28 PM on August 6, 2008

Being stung by or squishing a wasp releases pheromones that encourage other wasps to attack. You may have squished one wasp by accident, or there may have been one wasp that was mean. This meanness is probably a genetic quirk that won't last many generations.

Those who are allergic to bees and such usually carry injections with them, or get treatments to make their body able to cope with them. Yellowjackets are pollinators too, by the by, and are a natural part of the California ecosystem.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:32 PM on August 6, 2008

I have noticed that paint thinner/lacquer attracts wasps for some reason. Maybe nail polish had something to do with this.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:37 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not insect guy, but it sounds more like a ground hornet than a wasp to me. Linkage here to pic. To me, a wasp is a creature that makes a paper nest above the ground, similar to but different than a paper hornet. I have no idea what I'm talking about. To me a ground hornet is BIG, but a yellow jacket is small. In my experience, ground hornets hurt kind of a lot, whereas yellow jacket stings are more sort of hot than anything else.

I'm no help on any other regard, but I thought maybe the links would help to point out your foe.
posted by TomMelee at 5:40 PM on August 6, 2008

My husband (after cautiously examining me for any errant stingy things) took a quick look online and announced that if one swats at a wasp and causes it to sting, it leaves a scent that attracts other wasps to attack (sort of a "O HAI HERE IZ SUCKER 2 BITEZ" sign)

I think there's something true to this. I got stung by several wasps when I was like 5. My older sister and I were playing "garden" (replanting weeds in paper cups, and watering them from another cup). My sister knocked the cup of water on a ground nest of wasps, and they were totally pissed. She ran inside, and closed/locked the door because she didn't want to get stung. Which was so uncool, because I was screaming for mercy to be let in. She was not sympathetic. I was stung by three, ALL IN THE SAME SPOT. I never thought about it much, but this scent-theory was probably why they all decided to sting me in the same 1" square area on my upper right arm.
posted by raztaj at 5:41 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I totally forgot to add my story about ground hornets!

One day about 2 summers ago I was mowing the grass for an elderly gentleman associated with the community center I worked for. His hill was about 2 acres, with seriously about a 38degree slope. We had to mow it with cleats on. I ran over a nest with a pushmower w/o a muffler. It was sort of hard to count with the stings being on top of each other and whatnot, but we counted about 48 stings. The best part was hosing the still living bastards off my legs as their stingers were stick in my skin. I can't blame 'em though, they were just protecting their queen!

Also, yea, smoosh one and it tells the others to invade. True story.
posted by TomMelee at 5:50 PM on August 6, 2008

If you even walk past their hole at the wrong time, they'll attack. It's that time of year.

Yellowjacket wasps (that's what these are) are nearly omnivorous. They will land on you and bite you to see if you're good to eat. That's different than their defensive attacks with stinging and biting. They are good. They just aren't good around people. ;)

That nest is in a bad place. Someone's liable to really get hurt.
posted by reflecked at 5:57 PM on August 6, 2008

Wikipedia agrees that, at least in the case of bees (but apparently stinging insects in general, see the article reference to wasps):

The sting's injection of apitoxin into the victim is accompanied by the release of alarm pheromones, a process which is accelerated if the bee is fatally injured. Release of alarm pheromones near a hive or swarm may attract other bees to the location, where they will likewise exhibit defensive behaviors until there is no longer a threat, typically because the victim has either fled or been killed... These pheromones do not dissipate or wash off quickly, and if their target enters water, bees will resume their attack as soon as it leaves the water.

Elsewhere the page on hornets suggests: "Perfumes and other volatile chemicals can be falsely identified as pheromone... and trigger attack."

I would not advise trying to seek vengeance yourself, but maybe it's something your local council can sort out for you, seeing as they're probably good at not getting stung and also diverting passers-by while it's going on. It sounds like it'll be a continual nuisance for people walking by, and plus by destroying and eradicating wasps wherever they are found, you will truly be doing the Lord's work. Good luck!
posted by so_necessary at 6:06 PM on August 6, 2008

According to your link, DanielDManiel, I should be wearing light-colored clothing! I thought that attracted bees and stingy things, because one would look more "flower-like" (if that makes sense). I learn something every day.

If I am especially brave, maybe I'll try to get a photo of the hole (taken in the very cool of the morning, though, when they are less active -- I hope!).
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:07 PM on August 6, 2008

Last week I discovered a hole in my yard with lots of what I assumed to be bees flying in and out, but from this post now know to be ground hornets. After getting stung once (I am very allergic And my leg swelled greatly ), I abandoned my ethical and environmental standards. I went out at sundown and sprayed 1/3 of a can of RAID wasp killer down the hole. Result: an empty hole and no more hornets. Why wait for the city when you can do it yourself.
posted by Xurando at 6:18 PM on August 6, 2008

We had ones like that in Michigan - I think they were hornets. We used to pour gasoline down the hole and set it on fire to get rid of them. Verrrrrry satisfying.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:26 PM on August 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

My daughter went out around this time of the year last year with some mild amount of perfume on and was attacked and stung 3 times within the span of about a minute, all in the same spot, and this correlates with other tales I've heard of the "attack here" pheremone. I had the misfortune of getting stung 6 or 7 times in the hand when playing paintball by being with about 20' of a nest in a bush. I was looking around for enemies, felt a hot sting, then another and another, and I dropped my gun and then more came and stung, all within a spot maybe an inch across... Whole hand went numb for about a minute. After feeling returned I dashed back, grabbed my paintball gun, retreated about 50 feet and emptied it into their little nest, smashing it to flinders.

Wasps suck. If I were you, revenge would be served, preferably with some sort of flammable liquid late at night, if that wouldn't cause any hazard for the fire to spread. If that's not an option, got any M80s lying around from July 4th? If the hole's small enough and the firecracker's big enough, the shockwave will kill them all dead. I don't generally go for poisons, because pets can get into them too, and besides, this is WAR, dammit! ;)
posted by barc0001 at 6:27 PM on August 6, 2008

also, i believe wasps and other sting-y things get set off by the smell of the carbon dioxide we inhale, so when you get stung once, you breathe more heavily (because you are surprised and in pain) which then attracts all the others.

as for why you get stung the first time--it's possible the critter was just ornery to begin with and you happened to be in the way.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:38 PM on August 6, 2008

Kill them, kill them now. (Ugh...! Flashbacks from 'nam.)

I was under the impression colour attracted them (like initially) or you can just walk into a nest - whatever works? I remember mum saying something about a particular brand of charity donation bins always having wasp nests in them because of the colour. Whatever it was?? They phased it out anyway :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:13 PM on August 6, 2008

The Light Fantastic, my Dad took care of the two yellow-jacket nests in our yard the same way (SE Ohio). This was after my brother and neighbor got attacked and multiple stings/bites during a game of backyard football.
posted by johnstein at 8:52 PM on August 6, 2008

We once had a yellowjacket colony in a hole in the ground in our yard next to some woods in Connecticut. It went from nothing to wasp grand central in about two weeks. Spraying raid down the hole at dusk had little effect.

We asked around and the consensus was indeed to pour gasoline down the hole and burn them out. Let me tell you that for my fourteen year old self that was the coolest thing ever. (I was given the honors because by parents are both highly allergic). I had to repeat the treatment three days later as a few persistent survivors were actually trying to recolonize the charred hole.
posted by longsleeves at 9:54 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The basic advice for beginning beekeepers:
1. Do not wear dark clothing (beekeeping suits are always white)
2. Do not wear wool
3. Do not wear perfume or deodorant
4. If a bee lands on you, do not swat it
5. If you get stung, walk away slowly, before you get stung again

Yellowjackets are definitely more agressive than bees though.
posted by roofus at 2:20 AM on August 7, 2008

So I wanted to add how to kill the suckers with gasoline. My dad used to be a park ranger (geez, common post for me recently, "my dad..."), anyway he would use day-glo paint in the daytime to mark the hole when they were active. Then we'd go back at dusk with gasoline and dump maybe half a gallon down the hole. The trick is that YOU MUSTN'T LIGHT IT ON FIRE, as it's the vapors that kill them, not the fire. Lighting it simply torches the fumes where there's plentiful oxygen and dries up the rest of the deep-in gas. Remember---gas doesn't burn, its fumes/aerosoled particles do. Gas fumes are heavier than air, and fill up the hole and push out the oxygen. They also don't like the hydrocarbons---but mostly it's the fumes. They also don't seem to go "AHH SHTI EVAKUAT TEH HOELZ!" when the hole isn't burning.

We took out some huge, huge nests, it's amazing how fast they'll set up a 10,000 insect colony 20 feet from a public pavillion. Sometimes later we'd dig them up just to see how deep they were. We also burned a couple, just to see what would happen, but the big nests would always always survive. Dump the gas and leave it----muy perfecto.
posted by TomMelee at 5:07 AM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yellow Jackets are the gumpy old men of hymenoptera and tend to get much more aggressive in late summer and early fall.

Honeybees give off amyl acetate when they sting. I don't know if this is given off by other hymenoptera.

Amyl acetate is commonly used to add banana flavor/odor to things. It wouldn't surprise me if it were in a lotion.
posted by plinth at 6:52 AM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

My girlfriend had the classic lawnmower run-in with yellow jackets (or ground hornets, idk) a few weeks ago, and I ended up taking her to the emergency room. My idea was the same as you guys (i.e. burn those little fuckers!), but before I even mentioned it, the doctor made sure to tell us not to do that. Apparently this time of year they see a surge of people with insect stings, and people who lit themselves on fire trying to get rid of underground nests with gasoline. Plus, like TomMelee says, it is apparently the fumes that kills them. So seconding the 'don't light the gas.'
posted by Who_Am_I at 10:12 AM on August 7, 2008

I've taken out two yellow jacket nests with isopropyl alcohol. It works at least as well as gasoline and is far less toxic to the environment.
posted by Huplescat at 11:09 AM on August 7, 2008

Hmm. Great responses so far -- even the horrifying personal accounts of run-ins with the damn things.

My stings are actually scattered -- a small sting on my calf, several stings on my rear end (oh, the embarrassment!), and several right outside my underarm, nearly on my back. The damn things stung through my clothes. Still somewhat sore and itchy, even with topical antihistmine stuff on it.

I'm not of a pyrotechnical bent, and I'd hate to be arrested for attempted arson, so I think I won't be bringing a surfboard and humming "Ride of the Valkyries" as I napalm the hole any time soon. Although I am enjoying the mental image....

I tried to take a photo of the hole this morning as I walked to BART, but it's harder to spot in the morning -- it's easier to see when the late afternoon sun is shining at the correct angle (a la the scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when they're trying to reveal the "Well of Souls" in the Map Room).

If I am especially brave (or stupid), I'll try to take a photo tonight.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:13 AM on August 7, 2008

Huplescat -- would Everclear work?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:14 AM on August 7, 2008

Chiming in to say GET RID OF IT!!! I am highly allergic to insect stings and have to carry a bee sting kit, called an Epipen. The epipen is ridiculously overpriced for a person with no health insurance, and this summer, I've gone without one. I experience a *not* mild fear whenever I go outside, which makes me hate those things even more. May they all die a horrible, painful death.

Please be careful, but IMO, do eradicate them, if possible.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 5:26 PM on August 7, 2008

I am the hapless victim of this comment and I just wanted to say: I felt your pain! (And for future reference in terms of pain control, we read that meat tenderizer is supposed to be rubbed on the wounds immediately after the stingers and such are removed.)

The reasons you got attacked as near as I can figure are 1) you walked too close to their precious nest, and 2) yellow jackets are assholes.

Good luck with the death and destruction. Kill them for all us! (and I call myself a nature lover...)
posted by wundermint at 6:09 PM on August 7, 2008

I was brave! Here are photos!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:25 PM on August 7, 2008

Yeah, I'm sure everclear would do the job but rubbing alcohol is a whole lot cheaper. Good luck.
posted by Huplescat at 10:41 AM on August 8, 2008

rubbing alcohol is a whole lot cheaper

That occurred to me right after I posted my comment -- heh! Maybe I should get some Veuve Cliquot while I'm at it....

Well, I'm away for the weekend, and when I return I'll give it some thought. I think the city would use something noxious and horrible, whereas rubbing alcohol might do the trick without poisoning every other lifeform within a few square blocks.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:14 AM on August 8, 2008

at the risk of adding to the whole teen aged nasty stuff, I heard pouring molten lead down a bug hole was a groove thang and so I tried it on a fire ant nest (livin in fl, they are NOT endanged, alas) Night shift at a plastic factory left me with time and materials. I ended up with the coolest tree of woe you ever saw. Screaming fire ant corpses sticking out everywhere... though it may not seem likely, in every other way I am a hardcore environmental case, but fire ants are the exception that proves the rule, so on that occasion, my shoulder angel and shoulder devil both said coooool!
posted by Redhush at 4:35 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Redhush at 4:36 PM on August 8, 2008

UPDATE: Someone has smashed the wasp hole!

My husband sauntered by the wasp hole on Monday. He said he saw some city workers in the drainage channel, and noticed that the wasps looked "pissed." Then he noticed that the wasp hole had been crushed!

When I walked by yesterday, it looked like someone had dug up the wasp hole (there were still wasps hovering around). We wonder if the city workers did it. If they did, I think the Wasp War has escalated, instead of winding down. "Mission Accomplished" indeed.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:51 AM on August 27, 2008

Thanks for the update, potsmokinghippieoverlord.
posted by Huplescat at 2:39 PM on September 5, 2008

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