Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Killer Bees

I've just come downstairs from killing three hornets that had invaded the sanctity of the Marital Bedroom. Nasty, big brutes they were. They'd come in, as far as we could surmise, through the gap between open window-sashes, attracted by the soft bulbs with which we light our way to bed. This is their time of year to howl, as the first signs of autumn begin to show themselves. They died nobly, their jerking antennae warning me that I have an eventful early morning ahead of me tomorrow, up on a ladder looking for a nest to spray with deadly chemicals with names as long as your arm. The tree-hugger in me resists the wifely mandate to similarly soak wasps' nests on our soffets and eaves; as long as we leave each other alone I'm willing to coexist peacefully. But not hornets. They die.

I was reminded of a lovely late-spring weekend afternoon in 2000. Our puppies, acquired from the Animal Shelter the autumn previous, had grown to near full size, and they demanded vigorous daily exercise. From our old house in Reston it was a pretty walk to parkland surrounding a branch of Difficult Run, and this afternoon I had roused Betty, then eight, and Freddie, six, to accompany me for a ramble. We let the pups off the leash in the woods, to let them really stretch their legs and splash in the creek.

After a wade and a wet, laughter-filled romp, we whistled up the pups and began to head for home. On the steep draw up from the stream, I felt a sharp sting on my skin, and then another. The air was suddenly filled with angry swarming yellowjackets. One of the dogs had upset a ground-wasps' nest, and they were letting their displeasure be known.

Our dogs are an odd pair. Littermates, the offspring of a stray German Wirehaired Pointer who loved not wisely but too well, they are an interesting study in genetics. Ring Ting Ting, the bitch, has her mother's thick, wiry coat, which sheds water and is amazingly resistant to stinging insects. Brown Fang, on the other hand, has his bar-sinister father's short, smooth coat, which is lovely and sleek but which doesn't afford him the protection his sister enjoys. At the wasps' attack, his vulnerability was immediately apparent, while his sister was blissfully oblivious. He yelped and started pitiably -- which behavior, I noted with a fatherly concern, was soon to be replicated by my own human offspring if I didn't do something right perky.

Brilliantly, with the sort of instinctual élan that so marks the human male, I found my voice.

"Jesus Christ, what is this? Killer bees?"

"What, Dad?"


I believe it was Mr. Kipling who had some picquant words about "Keeping your head when all about you/Are losing theirs," and I can't help but imagine Old White Man's Burden gazing sadly into his gin-and-tonic, chopfallen at my lexicological skill at that critical moment. Why exactly I saw the need, in that moment of panic, to evoke killer bees to my wee tots, whose experience was entirely innocent of the term, is a matter for the psychological profession.
I only know that the expression meant one thing to me, and entirely another to the kiddies, who could only interpret my words painfully, searingly literally: Bees that kill.

As we jogged along the forest path, removing ourselves from the wasps' sphere of influence, poor Brown Fang's yelps lessening with each step, Freddie, his voice shaky and obviously badly frightened, asked me, "Dad? What are killer bees?"

It became immediately apparent to me how miserably I had just failed as a father. A single, stupid, unconsidered outburst had given my children an utterly unnecessary glimpse at their own mortality -- an unforgivably brainless moment of unthinking babble that had scared them beyond adult imagining. I was so, so sorry.

And I said so. I explained about Africanized honeybees that infest the American South, about how when they swarm on a body they can actually kill but that their reputation was greatly sensationalized. I tried to reassure them that they did not exist in our part of the country, that we'd been attacked by a perfectly ordinary swarm of yellowjackets disturbed by the dogs, that my outburst had been a stupid, stupid joke. How do you explain to children about hyperbole that arises from momentary panic?

Safe again, we made our way back to the house. It occurred to me to check the children's clothes for any remaining outliers. I raised Betty's t-shirt -- and found, to my horror, that one of the little buggers had taken up residence in her bellybutton. Calmly, I said, "Hold still, sweetie," and with a deft flick of the thumb and forefinger I sent it packing.

We had some great stories to tell Mom.


fgfdsg said...

I was stung by a European Wasp, (which I *think* are what you call Yellowjackets), as a teenager. It only stung me once, on the wrist, but I was extremely sick for the next few days, and my arm gradually turned a deep purple right up to my shoulder.

So, if 'killer bees!' gets your kids running and away before they're stung, yell it.

Neddie said...

Ah, no, Si. American Yellowjackets are somewhere on the experiential continuum between a mosquito and a common horsefly. To put it another way, between "ow" and "Fuck, OW!"

These beasts raise no purple arms or days-long sickness (unless, I suppose, you're allergic). Unpleasant, sure, but not like you stuck your arm in a hornets' nest. The kids had a few welts but nothing that didn't go away in an hour or two.

I sure do still feel guilty about scaring them unnecessarily, though. All I'd need to have said was "hurry along, kids," instead of "FUCK -- KILLER BEES!!!"

fgfdsg said...

I suppose I'm coming from a country full of outdoor dangers for a kid. Snakes, (7 of the 10 deadliest Snakes in the world are found in Oz); Spiders (trapdoors, funnel-webs and redbacks); Wasps (european and otherwise); Ticks...

Even the kangaroos turned out to be dangerous, once I'd seen one gut a dog in front of my eyes. Then there's the fact the dogs (dingos) can eat your babies...

The Koala Bear. Looks cute. Very sharp claws. Same with the Wombat. Looks stupid. Can knock you over due to it's sheer weight and bite and slice you open. I'm serious!

The Platapus! Stupidest looking creature you'll ever see. Until you learn as a kid the venom can kill you in extreme cases, or cause several months of swelling.

Then there were the other ways of dying. The Gum Tree Branch landing on your head ala 'Seven Little Australians'. Ross River Fever. That other weird one you get from swimming in dams that gets up in your sinuses and kills you within a few weeks, with no cure. Whatever it was that was so, so awful that 'You Don't Go Up There Miranda', in 'Picnic At Hanging Rock' that gave me nightmares for until i reached High School.

I spent most of my childhood terrified of leaving the house. No matter what you do to your kids, they can't possibly end up as messed up as I was.

Employee of the Month said...

"Ever get stung by a dead bee?"

The other childhood horrors greatly exaggerated were the infamous "pine rattler".

I also recall that POISON ivy was everywhere, but if you touched POISON SUMAC, why you were instantly dead.

I won't mention the dreaded under toad.

Mike Kretzler said...

Ah, KILLER bees. What a fine extension of our fear of being stung (it does hurt; I still remember my first sting -- I cried like a baby) into a far worse fate, extinction. Bubbles it right up out of the subconscious, doesn't it?

Tom said...

Simon: you didn't mention the cassowary, the World's Most Dangerous Bird. I've read accounts of its antics with humans that makes it sound as if the velociraptor didn't become extinct, but merely sprouted feathers.

roxtar said...

You must have some puny-ass yellowjackets where you grew up, Neddie. The ones I remember were fucking carnivorous. You dared not leave a plate of burgers unattended at a cookout. They're way above a horsefly; almost as bad as wasps, for my money.

fgfdsg said...

Tom, believe it or not, this is the first time I've even heard of the Cassowary. Their distribution seems to be focused in the very top end of Queensland, and I'm far to the south, so I'm lucky I didn't know of them as a kid, or I probably would have been running for my life from every Chicken I saw.

I forgot the Emu though. Taller than most adults at 2 metres tall. Can break into a 50 kph run. Very anti-social, and will snap at you, even in captivity. Makes a really creepy sound that has to be heard to be believed. Sharp claws again. Beady little eyes.

No wonder the first settlers thought Australia was hell.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Strikes me as infinitely less alarming than, say, a lesson in geopolitics.

Neddie said...

Simon: You're absolutely right in saying that a European Wasp is what we call a Yellowjacket: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wasp

I absolutely *love* what Wikipedia says is their US Southeastern name: "meat bees" -- had never heard that before. You could go a long way with a rock band by that name.

Still don't think their stings are all that bad. It's possible we were waylaid in the woods by something other than yellowjackets -- I'd left my entomological atlas in my other leotard -- but I have been stung by them and wasn't impressed. They're real aggressive, though -- much more so than hornets, according to the Web Site of Wisdom: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hornet

Freddie took a five-sting jellyfish attack at the beach last week, and the poor kid was in agony. He wouldn't return to the surf for days.

Blue Wren said...

Bees, wasps, hornets, yellowjackets, meat bees -- they're all the same to me. I'm allergic to the little suckers. Honeybees don't bother me much, but let a wasp or a hornet come helicoptering into the house and I'm under the bed until someone braver than me gets rid of it.

I have a younger sister who started her life being allergic (I came to this much later) to bees and wasps (and just about anything else you can name). I recall a fine morning, when she was about four and I was seven, when we'd gone out to the garage to see the new kittens. There on the cement floor near the steps was a wasp.

Just sitting there.

"Watch out! Wasp!" I said, and retreated. My little sister, who has ALWAYS been the hot dog of the two of us, said, "It's dead!"

We were both in pajamas and we were barefoot.

"No, it's NOT!" I said.

"Yes, it IS!" she said, and promptly went over and STEPPED ON IT.

She got stung. A wild visit to the emergency room followed forthwith.

My mom: "WHY did you let your sister step on that wasp?!"


Kevin Wolf said...

Back of the house I grew up in near Hartford, Conn, was a treeline along which yellowjackets had ground nests, one after the other in a row, like underground bunkers along a front in WWII.

We learned to keep one eye on the volleyball we were slapping back and forth and the other on any airborne dots.

I'm with roxtar on this: Those mothers hurt! You either managed to outrun them or they caught up with you in multitudes and you got three or five stings.