PAT NEAL: Bee ware of stings

THESE ARE THE mornings I’ll remember all winter. As the sun rises over the flank of Mount Olympus and the ocean fog retreats to the sea, we wander down to the garden, cup of coffee in hand, to feed upon the freshest berries and witness the dawning of a new day. To sit in silence, ignoring the garden chores that seem to haunt this time of year. But not for long.

The weeds will not wait. They grow while we sleep. It is a battle that must be won if we hope to harvest anything from the thin rainforest soil. The weeds have to go. It is a relaxing chore, turning weeds into compost — the purest form of revenge.

Until a burning sensation interrupts the morning routine. Then there’s a buzzing by my ear and a yellowjacket hits me in the forehead.

It’s a memorable event, encountering the first bees’ nest of the summer.

It’s early in the season to get attacked by bees. We usually don’t have to worry much about hornets and yellowjackets until sometime after the Fourth of July. These nasty little pests are showing up earlier and much thicker than they were last year. You were warned.

Okay, we know these are not really bees. There is no honey in their nest. We call hornets and yellowjackets “bees” because that is what we usually scream while we’re getting stung by them.

Here on the Olympic Peninsula, we are fortunate to not have a lot of the other annoying pests that plague the rest of the country. There are no rattlers. There are no grizzlies.

Unfortunately, the bald-faced hornets and yellowjackets are more dangerous in terms of human fatalities than all the rattlers and grizzlies put together.

According to government statistics, an average of five people die from rattlesnake bites in the U.S. every year. One or two people are killed by grizzly bears in North America every year.

On average, 62 people die of bee stings in the U.S. every year. Usually getting stung by these insects results in an unforgettable burning, swelling and itching sensation, but some people are highly allergic and can develop anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

This all started with the queen hornet building her paper nest out of chewed up wood in the spring. She is a shy and lonely vegetarian, subsisting on a diet of nectar from the huckleberry blossoms. When her nest is about the size of a golf ball, they are easy prey for the Stellar’s jays that peck the middle out of the nest to get the tasty grubs growing inside.

If you hate hornets as much as I do, the Stellar’s or blue jays are your best friend.

As the grubs hatch, this new generation of workers searches far and wide, chewing up wood to enlarge the nest and killing other bugs of all sorts to feed the grubs and the queen, who sits in the nest laying eggs to enlarge the swarm.

Along about now, the nest is the size of a softball or a cantaloupe. As the nest grows larger, the bees become more aggressive.

Hitting the nest with a lawnmower or other noisy power toy causes the hornets to release an attack pheromone that activates the swarm into an attack mode that is unforgettable to those unfortunate enough to experience it.

There are almost as many treatments for bee stings as there are ways of getting stung. These include everything from mud to Benadryl and even Windex.

The best precaution is to not get stung in the first place.


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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