Pugnacious polistes

As a young child I would cry when a bee or wasp stung me.  What little kid doesn’t?  At that age, the injection of venom feels like the end of the world.

Then I grew older and learned to ignore the pain.  It became inconsequential, a barely noticeable pinch, a slight burn that lasted no more than an hour.  By then I was playing many an afternoon in the garden catching bees and wasps with my bare hands.  I never really understood what the game was about—despite it being a game of my making—but I always knew how the game ended: when my hand was too swollen to close around the next insect.

When I reached puberty, however, all that changed.  I developed a deadly allergy to the sting of bees, wasps and ants, a twofold dilemma that includes an allergic response (anaphylaxis) and an immune response (sepsis).

Yet despite the very real threat, I don’t fear things that sting or bite.  When a bark scorpion stung me twice several weeks ago, it was because I was trying to pick it up so I could show it to a friend, only it was in an advantageous position that made me an easy target.  All sorts of stingy and bitey things live around and visit my home, and we get along just fine.

Heck, I live in the middle of a massive colony of one of North America’s largest wasps, eastern cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus), and I spend a great deal of time sitting in the middle of the swarm, provoking them to perch on me, handling them at every opportunity, observing every facet of their short lives.

But in general what I don’t like are paper wasps.[1]  My experiences with them have taught me one thing: as a rule they are unpredictable and belligerent, always ready to pick a fight and always ready to put the hurt on you.[2]  I like watching their nests from a distance and I don’t mind individuals getting close to me, but en masse they’re too disagreeable for my taste.[3]

What with names like Polistes bellicosus and Polistes comanchus, not to mention Polistes instabilis, even the scientific community recognizes their contrary nature and tendency to sting first and ask questions never.

Which brings me to last October…

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032568)

I was wandering around the Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area when I spied a large nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus).  Colloquially they are known as Apache paper wasps, a name meant to imply something about their collective personality.

I was being good and staying on the trail.  They were being good and staying on their nest, which was hanging in the brush alongside the trail.  Being a smart fellow—or at least a fellow with his personal safety foremost on his mind—I used a telephoto lens to grab a few shots, then I gave them a wide berth as I passed.

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032575)

I returned along that trail about an hour later after exploring the mostly flooded riparian paths.  As I walked back toward the car, I could see things had changed.  The wasps were agitated.  At least half of them buzzed through the trail as if looking to pick a fight.  The other half hurried all over the nest.

And not too far away I could hear a child crying from where the trail intersects the path to the camping area.

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032578)

I made a mad dash through the swarm and came out the other side with nary a sting.  As I passed the camping area, I pretty much felt certain I understood what had happened.

A young boy sat cradled in a woman’s arms, his mother I assumed.  He had several noticeable stings on his face, arms and legs.  I stopped long enough to ask if they needed me to call for medical help.  The woman assured me that he’d be OK, that he wasn’t allergic.

Then almost in a whisper she said he was learning a necessary lesson the hard way.  “Next time he’ll know I’m serious when I say he shouldn’t get too close.”

I would agree.  From the welts still swelling on his body, it looked like a painfully memorable lesson.  And selfish though it was, I couldn’t help but be grateful that it was him instead of me.

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[1] Not all species of paper wasps are angry little creeps looking to pummel you at the first opportunity.  Polistes annularis is a good example.  These large and intimidating critters are pretty docile.  I can get close to them without worry.  But that’s an exception to the rule since most paper wasps are just damn crazy mad.

[2] To relay a story my mother told: She walked outside at the family farm and stepped to the edge of the back porch.  She did not know paper wasps had built a nest right under her feet.  They swarmed out from under the porch and attacked her legs.  She received more than a few stings.  Keep in mind my mother is a small woman and she couldn’t possibly have caused that much disruption simply by walking over the nest.  But it was enough to piss off the wasp population.

[3] Yesterday I ran into a collection of my archenemy, the red wasp (Polistes carolina).  Their nest had fallen from a tree.  A friend and I came upon it unexpectedly.  This is the only species of wasp to sting me since my allergy developed, a total of three stings since the early 80s.  Yesterday, however, they upped their ante: they stung me three times at once.  That equated to more than eight hours in the emergency room.  And now it means having to cancel a vacation in early August as well as a surprise trip to Canada next week when I intended to meet someone I really want to spend time with.  I can’t promise that the whole of P. carolina will pay the price, but you can bet they’ve made the most inenarrable day of my life an event to remember—and they certainly made the list of enemies to be dispatched by me at any cost.

3 thoughts on “Pugnacious polistes”

  1. So sorry, Jason. That had to have been a horrible experience. That stinks that you will have to cancel your trips.

    Your wasp pics are beautiful.

  2. Oh Jason, I’ve just come to this and discovered what happened to you. (We’ve got the builders in again and my blog reading has been on hold, so I’m behind with stuff.) And your mum too! What a terrible thing. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been in the wars. I do hope that you’re recovered now and are feeling better. My thoughts go out to you.

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