PAT NEAL: Bee careful in autumn woods

Thank you for reading this. Sometimes, I think if you didn’t read this, no one would. But you do.

A sharp-eyed reader suggested that, in last week’s column about cutting firewood, I neglected to mention one of the most notorious dangers in the woods — bees!

We’re not talking about honeybees. There is no honey in hornet nests. Just more hornets!

We call them bees because that’s what we scream when black hornets and yellow jackets attack.

The Olympic Peninsula is fortunate not to have a lot of the other annoying pests that plague some parts of our country. We have no rattlesnakes. We have no grizzlies. Nationwide, however, bald-faced hornets and yellow jackets are more dangerous, in terms of human fatalities from anaphylactic shock, than all the rattlers and grizzlies put together.

It all started last spring, when the solitary queen wasp emerged from hibernation and started building her paper nest out of chewed up wood and saliva.

She was a shy and lonely vegetarian pollinator, subsisting on a diet of nectar from the huckleberry blossoms. Her nest started out about the size of a golf ball.

These small nests are easy prey for the blue jays that peck the middle out of the nest to get the tasty larvae growing inside. Bears also feed on wasp nests, but generally in the fall of the year when there are enough grubs to make a meal.

There could be a tougher way to make a living than eating hornet nests, but I am not sure what that would be. If you hate hornets and yellow jackets as much as I do, blue jays and bears are your friends.

As the wasps hatch, a new generation of workers emerges from the nest. Some chew up wood to enlarge the nest. Others kill bugs or gather carrion to feed the hatching larvae that are metamorphosing into pupae and flying adults.

All the while, the queen lays eggs to enlarge the swarm.

At this point, a word of sympathy might be in order for the wasps. Hornets and yellow jackets do a good job getting rid of garden pests, but we generally don’t care once we get a bee sting.

Along about midsummer, the nest was the size of a baseball. The hornets became more aggressive.

Hitting the nest with a lawnmower, or some other noisy power toy, causes the hornets to release an attack pheromone that activates the swarm like a 9-1-1 call. It puts them into an attack mode that is unforgettable to those unfortunate enough to experience it.

As autumn approaches, the nest can be the size of a watermelon, with hundreds of bees coming and going.

As the worker bees feed the larvae, the larvae feed the bees a sugary excrement in exchange.

As the days shorten and autumn approaches, the larvae pupate, depriving the worker bees of their food.

Right about now, the hornets and yellow jackets are hungry and looking for sweets. That’s why they attack honey bee nests, picnics and anything else with sugar content.

Not only are the bees hungry, the male wasps know they are destined to mate and die. That’s seems to make them meaner, attacking without warning after even the slightest provocation — like rolling a chunk of firewood on top of their nest.

Experts advise to remain calm during a hornet or yellow jacket attack.

I have never seen that done.

The best you can do is to avoid wearing brightly colored clothing in the woods and watch your step.

It’s all part of the fun of cutting firewood or doing anything else outdoors this time of year.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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