Fright and flight

It’s just the sort of memorable adventure one hopes for on a family camping trip — rushing your swelling and hysterical son to the emergency room via a long fire road.

It’s that special time of year when the yellow jackets are extra-frisky, testing hikers and bikers at their skills in screaming down the trail at top speed while shedding gear and clothing.

Wasp

There you are, cruising along minding your own business, maybe looking into the trees, when you hear the beginning of a buzzing frenzy, followed soon after by a stinging frenzy. Yellow jackets’ aggressiveness and skill at collaboration are astonishing.

Just ask my buddy Zachary Lebbon, 9, who rode his bike over a nest on the trail by mistake — an unremarkable hole in the ground that probably belonged to a rodent before being taken over by yellow jackets. At the first sting, Zachary hollered, dropped his bike and took off running, but it was too late. No matter how loudly he screamed, the wasps burrowed into his helmet, up his shirt and down his socks, stinging as they went.

It’s just the sort of memorable adventure one hopes for on a family camping trip — rushing your swelling and hysterical son to the emergency room via a long fire road. I’m now thinking of adding an epinephrine pen to my first-aid kit.

Once his mom and dad had stripped him down and flogged him (to kill the bees, of course), Zachary broke out into hives — followed by dizziness, screaming and, finally, fainting due to hysteria. We carted him from the campsite in a wheelbarrow, and a forest ranger followed us to the emergency room. Steroids helped. The brave lad says his medical ordeal was unpleasant but not nearly as traumatic or painful as the bees.

I guess that’s one way to find out if you’re allergic to something.

Our valiant hero returned to the campsite later that afternoon, albeit with a new vigilance toward stinging insects. He even rallied for another bike ride and fire-roasted wieners, despite the antihistamine delirium.

Zachary’s experience reminded me of my own mountain-biking bee ballet a few years back — though happily, I was spared the allergic reaction. After a long hour climbing technical single-track, my friends and I were really psyched for the true candy of the day: the descent. My mistake was letting the guys go first.

We dropped down a steep trail, bounced across scattered roots and rocks, and gathered speed. Apparently the guys were faster than the bees they stirred up, which were confused about whom to sting until I showed up. At first I thought I could outride them, but I soon realized that I needed my hands for swatting as well as holding the handlebars. I dropped the bike and began screaming, running around and flailing my arms until my friend John came back and commanded me to take off my clothes. I didn’t ask why, though I figured out later that it was probably more fun for him to watch a hysterical, bee-swatting woman run around the trail naked.

That night I counted 14 stings. Heat is probably a dubious treatment for something that’s already red and inflamed, but the tingle of the hot-tub jets at least masked the nasty itch.

The standard advice calls for applying bee-sting remedies within a few minutes, but that’s hardly a realistic timetable when you’ve been attacked by several bees. I mean, three minutes later they’re still assaulting you — and you’re still tearing through the forest toward your tent. True, if you’ve been stung only once or twice, it helps to apply a mound of moistened salt to the fresh wound. (Some say a tobacco poultice works too, but then we don’t smoke, do we?)

In the aftermath of a bee raid, household ammonia, antihistamines, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion and ice packs will all get you through the next week.

Late summer/early fall is our favorite time to enjoy the reprieve from hot temperatures, but it’s also when the yellow-jacket population peaks. Members of the family Vespidae (the paper wasps), yellow jackets are considered “social wasps” — perhaps because they enjoy outdoor gatherings where lots of people and their sticky, sugar-coated kids come together.

Yellow jackets like to hide their nests, so look for holes in the ground — often near tree roots or stumps where the insects are hovering about, entering and exiting. Like honeybees, yellow jackets gather nectar, but they’re also protein scavengers. Unlike honeybees, they don’t leave their stinger in your skin (and thus can use it multiple times).

Don’t let those feisty critters keep you from having fun in the woods. Instead, be on the lookout for nests, carry Benadryl with you, and maybe even secure your sleeves and pant legs so bees can’t fly in. Evacuate the area where you were stung, and strip yourself of hat, helmet, pack, etc. if you think bees are trapped in them.

Oh, and welcome to fall!

[Bettina Freese lives in Asheville.]

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