They're out there. You can't see them yet through the lazy wisps of barbecue smoke, but they've arrived, loitering near the grill like a street gang, waiting to crash the cookout.
Yellow jackets. Striped terrors bred to spoil parties. Brutally efficient hunters whose repeated stings can kill a horse. Meat bees, as they're called in California. What's a Labor Day picnic without them?
Many a family outing has been marred by yellow jackets hovering over a bologna sandwich. They pounce on a soda the moment the can is opened. These are the sounds of summer: Pop. Fizz. Buzz. Slap. Sting.
The Sting is coming soon, to a picnic table near you.
Perhaps no other insect evokes such fear and loathing as the yellow jacket. Ironically, no other creature is as undeserving of its reputation.
The truth is, yellow jackets are indefatigable workers, caring guardians and deft predators. Reputation aside, they don't care about man unless they are threatened. It's that bologna, not your body, they crave.
Yellow jackets rarely sting while away from the nest. But it's hard to sit still when one lands on your hand.
"Yellow jackets were not put on this earth to terrorize people," says Al Greene, an entomologist for the federal government in Washington. "The cartoons have it all wrong. Yellow jackets don't put on their goggles and come down from the sky after you, stinger first."
Despite their pushy demeanor, the insects have no beef with picnickers, says Mr. Greene.
"If you're eating a sandwich, they don't care about you. They've come by to check out those yummy smells."
Routinely, the yellow jacket preys on a more mundane menu of soft-bodied insects such as flies, moths, mosquitoes and caterpillars. Cicadas are a gourmet treat. Yellow jackets will even attack grasshoppers, discarding the inedible parts. Scientists have found mounds of grasshopper legs piled neatly by the entrance to the nest. Yellow jackets keep a tidy house.
The "Top Gun" in the world of flying insects, the yellow jacket can deftly pluck a spider from its web in midair. Totally dedicated to family, it will literally wear out its wings in an effort to feed and care for the young.
The yellow jacket is programmed to kill for its brood. It is a formidable flying nanny, half Mary Poppins, half Terminator. Crippled yellow jackets have even been known to limp on foot from the nest in search of prey.
When not stalking flies and other pesky insects, yellow jackets feed on nectar and help to pollinate flowers.
But the yellow jacket's critical role in the food chain is overshadowed by its skirmishes with man, particularly in late summer when the insects seem to become cantankerous junk food addicts. They swarm angrily around dumpsters, swimming pools and snowball stands.
The reason? The old yellow jacket queen is dying, the children are grown and the colony is crumbling. The adults have no one to feed or tuck in at night. So the Waltons of the insect world become a flying Addams Family.
Until then, however, their behavior is exemplary.
"Yellow jackets have gotten a bum rap," says Mr. Greene. "They are supreme predators, and one of the most important natural biological control agents. They are better than birds at reducing the pest population. But birds are fluffy and bright. Yellow jackets are icky and sting. And someone who has just gone into shock from a yellow jacket sting is going to turn a deaf ear to their niche in the ecosystem."
Other experts agree. Twelve years of research have increased his regard for yellow jackets, says Dr. Byron Reid, an entomologist at Purdue University. Most impressive, he says, is their learning ability. Laboratory tests at Purdue have shown that yellow jackets make a beeline for regular feeding troughs, even in the absence of food.
Disturb their nest, and yellow jackets remember it all summer. The smallest vibration brings them outside in droves. Slam the car door and run for your life.
"The yellow jacket is a noble beast. It's a beneficial insect that happens to sting you," says Dr. Reid.
He disputes the popular notion that yellow jackets become more aggressive in late summer. "It's just that there are more of them, and we are real nice to feed them sodas and watermelon at picnics and fairs," he says. "Then they land on our shirts and we swat at them."
Having destroyed much of their natural habitat, we should learn to accept these insects, he says. We ought to have picnics of bread and cheese and vegetables, foods they largely ignore. But that won't happen, says Dr. Reid. "Our Labor Day mind-set is, 'Dammit, I want my pork barbecue sandwich.' "
The sandwich draws yellow jackets, and all hell breaks loose. Killing one insect only exacerbates the problem. When crushed, some species emit chemicals -- alarm pheromones -- that alert the others, triggering a cavalry charge.
Stinging insects claim at least 50 lives a year in the United States -- more than the number claimed by snakebites -- but some experts say as many as 200 fatalities should be attributed to yellow jackets and their kin.
"A lot of [the deaths] may be mistaken for heart attacks," says Dr. David Golden, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Most fatalities occur among the elderly, he says.
Some deaths make horrible headlines. In 1984, hundreds of yellow jackets stung and killed a Florida youth who had stumbled upon their underground nest. In 1989, a retired Air Force colonel who had shot down nearly two dozen enemy planes in three wars died of complications from the sting of a single yellow jacket.
Unlike the honeybee, which stings once and dies, the yellow jacket's retractable stinger allows it to attack ad infinitum. Eight stings from a single insect isn't unusual, although the venom runs out after three or four jabs.
Yellow jackets sting, but rarely bite people. Generally, they bite their insect prey and sting only in self-defense: Venom is too precious to waste.
Roger Akre was bitten once. "It hurt like hell," he says. Mr. Akre, an entomologist at Washington State University, was studying the insects in his lab when a yellow jacket flew by and bit off a tiny piece of his right ear. As he watched, the worker insect returned to its nest and fed his flesh to the hungry larvae.
Fifteen years later, he still carries the scar; also a medical kit. Mr. Akre, the dean of yellow jacket research, is allergic to their stings.
Severe allergic reactions to insect stings are rare, affecting 2 percent of the adult population and 1 percent of children, says Dr. Golden. Those at risk may develop symptoms such as shortness of breath, difficulty in swallowing and low blood pressure.
These people have two options: carry an allergy kit, a $30 syringe-type prescription device; or undergo immunotherapy, a five-year desensitization process whereby the insect's own venom is injected into the patient's body, in gradually increasing doses, to reduce sensitivity to it. President Bush has received this treatment.
The procedure, considered wholly effective, is "no more risky than getting hay fever shots," says Dr. Golden. Immunotherapy costs between $200 and $1,000 a year.
Children are less allergic to insect stings than previously thought, according to recent studies at Hopkins.
"We know now that kids tend to outgrow insect allergies," says Dr. Kenneth Schuberth, a pediatric allergist in Lutherville. Immunotherapy is now the exception, not the rule, he says.
Nonetheless, susceptible Americans spend more than $1 million annually on allergy medication for insect stings. The rest of us run for the ice packs, baking soda or meat tenderizer, which help alleviate some of the pain and swelling, though none of that damnable itching. The quest for elixirs goes on.
"People want a magic bullet to cure these ills. The truth is, there's little you can do to stop it hurting," says Mr. Greene. "Much worse is the terror, the loathing. The important thing is that you treat the sting in some way. The psychological benefits [of treatment] probably outweigh the physiological ones."
Disturb their nesting areas and angry yellow jackets can wreak havoc on the economy. They have single-handedly shut down sawmills, delayed orchard harvests and sent people packing from resorts, campgrounds and county fairs. Yellow jackets have vexed workers in wineries, canneries and landfills. They have even provoked letters to the editor: one Sun reader referred to the yellow jackets circling his head at a picnic as "those angry electrons."
Several years ago, in Klamath Falls, Ore., a swarm of yellow jackets suddenly became enamored with the town's bright yellow fire truck. (Yellow jackets love bright colors.) Firefighters dislodged them with a blast of water. Undaunted, the insects surrounded a nearby yellow pickup truck. Terrified, the driver sped away, finally outrunning the buzzing horde.
"If yellow jackets were people, they would be outlaw bikers -- swift, aggressive and marauding," says Mr. Greene.
"They eat our food and live among us with impugnity. They are little robots who do everything for sake of family. Their program has been honed for millions of years, and they'll be here long after we're gone."
Yellow jackets have plagued man for centuries: There are three biblical allusions to angry hornets driving people from their homelands. Moreover, fossils of wasps that lived 35 million years ago bear close resemblance to the yellow jackets of today.
(Yellow jackets and hornets are members of the wasp family, which gather meat for their young. They should not be confused with honeybees, which collect only pollen.)
The smallest yellow jacket is 1/4-inch long; the largest is 6 feet. That would be Buzz, the mascot of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. School officials can't say if Buzz himself has been stung on the job. Says one, "He wears so much padding, he probably wouldn't know it."
Yellow jackets begin their lives in a rotten log, an old attic or a hole in the ground. Only the queen has survived the winter. From hibernation she awakens to harsh reality: She is hungry, alone and very pregnant. In her abdomen rest the genetic codes of 25,000 potential offspring.
Murphy Brown had it made.
The queen grabs a quick meal and gathers enough wood to build a nest the size of a golf ball. She warms the nest, curling her body protectively around it, and hunkers down for some serious egg-laying.
The first clutch is small, less than 10 eggs. But those offspring, all female, dote on the queen, bringing her food and enlarging the nest so that each successive brood produces more and more eggs. Yellow jackets live about six weeks, and by August, the colony may number 5,000. All female. All instinctive foraging machines devoted to feeding the young.
Mealtime is not a pretty sight. The yellow jackets bite off the head and limbs of their prey, chew it up, spit out the goo and carry it back to the nest to feed the larvae.
By early fall, the queen is near death. But she lays one more clutch of eggs, a special crop of males and females: These are the prospective queens and their suitors. Once impregnated, each new queen finds a winter nook apart from the nest -- beneath fallen leaves, under tree bark or in the crevice of a house -- and sleeps until spring, when the cycle starts anew.
Yellow jackets are neither benign nor bitchy, but a swirling mix of both, says Mr. Greene.
"They will frighten hummingbirds away from feeders. They'll gnaw holes in the sides of nestling birds. But yellow jackets do so much that's good. A large nest disposes of hundreds of thousands of destructive insects daily.
"We don't want a world without yellow jackets."
Or do we?
HOW NOT TO GET STUNG
* Take care when eating and drinking outdoors. Drink only from a clear glass, never from an aluminum can or other dark container; they may contain insects.
* When met by a yellow jacket, try to remain calm. Ignore the insect, or blow it away. Move slowly from the area.
* Dress sensibly. Avoid wearing brightly colored clothes, especially yellows and reds. Never wear floral patterns at a picnic. Bright-colored jewelry also attracts yellow jackets.
* Wear shoes at all times.
* Cover all trash cans.
* Inspect outdoor areas for nests before doing yard work.
* Don't feed pets outdoors.
* Avoid using scented toiletries.
* Examine water fountains before taking a drink.
* Follow established trails when walking in parks.
* Be cautious at outdoor pool areas; insects like to congregate there.
* Forget bug sprays. Commercial insect repellents are ineffective against yellow jackets.