Wasp sting is penalty for impulsive gardening

Wasps

Paper wasps often build nests under eaves or in shrubbery, where their open-cell structures are protected. (Sherry Boas, Special to the / June 13, 2010)

Every summer I manage to get stung by a wasp. This summer is no exception.

On a recent Sunday, I was sitting on the porch reading. On the other side of the porch is a garden bed in which a rambling rosemary bush had sprawled over the walkway and grown about 4 feet tall.

For months — OK, maybe more than a year — I have been meaning to trim the fragrant herb, but I kept putting it off. I told myself I would prune it when I was ready to propagate the cuttings.

Rosemary sprigs propagate easily, and the idea of wasting plants bothered me. The problem was that I had no idea where to put all those potential plants. Without a plan, I opted for inaction, allowing the bush to expand exponentially.

Although I was on the porch reading, I kept putting down my book to look at the lake. Every time my gaze swept outward, the overgrown rosemary bush obstructed the view. Impulsively, I decided to trim it.

That impulsiveness was my undoing. Had I stopped to think, I would have at least put on some gloves and spent a few minutes scanning the shrub carefully before making any cuts. I knew that wasps nested in the dense cover provided by the untrimmed branches. Paper wasps have lived in that rosemary bush for years. I've even been stung before when trimming it.

People often learn from their mistakes, but not this time. With a burst of energy, I grabbed the hedge trimmers and enthusiastically began hacking the top and side stems.

I was making impressive progress, and the wasps must have thought so, too. I snipped. They swarmed. I screamed and ran for cover.

One snap of the blades exposed the wasps' previously hidden home. Paper wasps build open-cell structures out of wood fiber mixed with saliva. These normally non-aggressive insects often construct their honeycomb-like nests under roof eaves or in the center of protective bushes.

A queen wasp is the core of the wasp community, which also includes fertile male drones that don't have stingers and a contingency of infertile females called worker wasps. The workers do have stingers. It is their job to tend and defend the eggs whenever they perceive a threat.

I was that threat.

Although many wasps flew out of the nest, only one wasp managed to make contact. It stung my left pointer finger. A wasp's stinger connects to a venom sac inside its body. Chemicals in the venom cause pain and irritation. Unlike bees that die after stinging a victim, paper wasps can sting repeatedly.

I don't know how many times my attacker pumped chemicals into my flesh, but I know its venom was effective. Despite liberal applications of witch hazel, vinegar and Benadryl, my finger swelled up immediately. By the next day, my left forearm resembled an overinflated balloon.

The way I see it, one sting was a small price to pay for my lapse of judgment. Paper wasps are not evil animals out to get people. They are actually beneficial insects that consume many of the pests — caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae — that damage garden plants.

The secret to avoiding painful interactions with paper wasps is to be aware of them and to exercise reasonable caution when working where they may be living.

Impulsive behavior can be charming or, as I so recently experienced, it can also be alarming. Next time an urge to control untidy plants strikes, I'll try to control myself first.

Sherry Boas can be reached at simplyliving@beautifulbamboo.com. Her columns can be found online at OrlandoSentinel.com/lake. Her new book is Rowing Through The Mist: The Everyday Pleasures of Simply Living.
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