Outdoors: Stings and slithers

It’s dry, it’s fall, the flowers are almost gone. And the bees want meat.

Correction

We had to shorten Jeff Ashton’s Outdoors column, “A Little Trout With Your Drought,” last week due to space constraints, and it resulted in distortions of the author’s meaning. For example, Ashton points out that in times of drought, water often becomes very clear—not “murkier” as our edited version stated. And in a paragraph that didn’t make it into print, Ashton had tried to make it clear that human influence has been worse for our trout than the unusually dry weather: “Drought and flood are natural parts of the world, and trout adapt to them,” he wrote. “What is unprecedented is the fact that in the last 200 years, the hand of man has created paradigms that so profoundly influence the environment that, in times of extreme upheaval (such as the current drought), it pushes nature past the point of no return.” Our apologies for the misrepresentation.

Just ask my sister-in-law. Her Tennessee walker recently trotted too close to a yellow-jacket nest: All told, woman and horse sustained 50 stings.

Or ask me. At the playground not long ago, my son and I were swinging. A hornet came and went in a blink, but that’s all the time it needed to embed its calling card in my flesh. Never having been allergic to any stinging insect, I was shocked as my forearm puffed up, Popeyelike, from wrist to elbow.

“It’s not the worse sting I’ve seen today,” said the clinic nurse. I found her comment oddly disappointing—my worst-ever experience didn’t even make her list. But the remark did provide a casual validation of what Henderson County beekeeper Diane Almond calls “a particularly tough season” for bees.

“They’re starving,” says Almond, who sells 400 to 500 pounds of honey from her hives each year. She blames pesticides and the “global exchange of non-native parasites” for the widely publicized disappearance of wild honeybees. The drought, however, makes life even tougher for them, and it’s affecting stinging bugs of all sorts, Almond notes. Many kinds of bees become increasingly active in fall as the more bountiful food sources—such as summer flowers—dry up, and the bees scavenge for whatever nectar is left.

This year, though, they’ve been hungry for months, she reckons.

“There’s usually a dearth of food for them after the sourwood and sumacs are over, but they have the gorgeous wildflowers in the meadows. Those flowers are increasingly not there for them, because of the drought or [because of] those areas being developed,” Almond continues.

“I’ve had people calling me to say, ‘I have all these bees by my pond, on my hummingbird feeder, in my pool.’” Don’t be alarmed, says Almond: The bees are merely “using that water to … air-condition their hives and to dilute their honey to last the winter.” But even in tough times, honeybees are usually pacifists, she maintains. “A honeybee [isn’t] going to sit on your hot dog or hamburger. She’s a vegetarian, and she dies after one sting. She’s got one bullet and she’s not going to waste it on you. You are not worth dying for,” Almond emphasizes.

Bees may simply be busier in times of drought and as fall approaches, but other buzzing critters bear watching: “A yellow jacket or hornet can get pretty feisty. They’ll sit on your Pepsi or on your sandwich—or on you,” she points out. “This fall is going to be a little worse where all [stinging insects] are concerned,” Almond concludes. “They’re a little more desperate right now.”

Copperheads and rattlesnakes and bears… oh my!

As befits a naturalist, Bob Fay considers the intersection of venom and human from the snake’s point of view. “In the fall, snakes risk being spotted more by people,” says Fay, who is operations manager at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. “They cross roads and show up in yards and other places they wouldn’t normally be.”

During late summer and fall in the mountains, serpents of all stripes are heading back to the homes they left in spring, he explains. “They can go miles away to find food and to live out the summer, but during fall they are all moving back toward their dens,” says Fay. “Baby copperheads born in summer have had time [to eat] a few meals and to shed their skin, and they can find their way back to the den sites as well as the adults. It’s a cool mystery how these little bitty snakes can travel so far and know their way back.”

Rattlesnakes, he notes, also have dens they’re returning to.

And there’s another reason for the increased activity: “Our winters get shorter every year,” Fay observes. The Nature Center, he reports has had more calls than usual about bears entering residential areas (including the one that wandered up to the Haywood Road AutoZone this summer—presumably not looking to buy a new battery for his Cub Cadet tractor). Like snakes, bears become more active in the fall.

“Our bears here at the Nature Center have a dependable food source,” Fay points out. “But truly wild black bears are generally hustling [and] gathering mast crops like acorn nuts. They need to bulk up for the overwintering period.”

Unlike true hibernation, overwintering is a state of torpor from which animals can more easily awaken, such as when spring comes too early, Fay explains. Shorter or milder winters affect that cycle.

So does drought: Thanks to our region’s ongoing water woes, Fay has spotted both bears and snakes seeking refreshment where they might usually fear to tread (or slither). “I’ve seen snakes traveling to more permanent water sources they normally wouldn’t have to rely on, like the Swannanoa River close to the Nature Center,” he says. “Usually they’d rely on springs higher up, or just drink rainwater from thunderstorms or [sip] dew.”

“If their usual water sources aren’t available to them, sooner or later animals have to leave their natural habitat to find another source. And life becomes more dangerous for them”—and thus for us.

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]

 

 

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