You don’t even want to tangle with a bunch of angry wasps because these flying predators can sting repeatedly, unlike bees which come equipped with detachable stingers good for only one round of battle.
This is bad news for anyone but especially people who are allergic or sensitive to wasp stings. Among adults 20 and older, hornets, wasps, and bees account for about one-third of all animal-related deaths in the U.S., many of them from allergies.
The thing about wasps is, where you see one, there are bound to be others. They build nests, live in colonies, and share a hive mind. Many types of wasps are called solitary and are completely harmless. In fact, most people never notice them.
But say the word ‘wasp’ and most people will visualize a trademark yellow-and-black variety of what’s known as a social wasp. These distinctive insects forage for their vital life necessities: material to build nests, water, food for their young, and food for themselves.
During the early warm months of the year, wasps seek out sugars to eat. They depend on carbohydrates, usually from sweet liquids such as nectar and honeydew. (They also drink water.)
The behavior of wasps changes in late summer as their food preference shifts from sugars to proteins. They will leave gardens and flowering spots in favor of anywhere food is consumed outdoors and garbage is collected.
In all fairness, wasps are important plant pollinators. But it’s hard for me to pity an insect that sits near a staked-out beehive and innocently grooms itself until, suddenly and without warning, it mercilessly attacks an equally-innocent honeybee that was guilty only of cleaning itself nearby.
A determined wasp can take the head right off a much larger honeybee. The wasp will fly the protein-rich food to its hungry and growing grubs back home, in its nest.
Seeing growing numbers of wasps in sunny doorways, window cracks, and building corners may well be a sign that there are nests close by. A nest which starts out as one to three grub cells in the spring may grow much bigger by late summer.
A mature autumn nest can house thousands of wasps. Once riled, wasps become aggressive, and will attack, stinging repeatedly.
Multiple wasp stings can cause severe pain, swelling, and itching. Apply a cold pack, chilled water bladder or cloth-wrapped ice to the worst areas and take an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl to reduce swelling.
A potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction can occur within 15 minutes in people who are allergic to wasp stings. Such people are advised to take an oral antihistamine immediately even before any symptoms are noticeable.
If the condition worsens (difficult breathing, tight chest, dizziness or a swollen throat) inject prescription epinephrine (epi) into the outside of one thigh, have the injured person lie down, treat for shock, and seek medical help, keeping another dose of epi ready.
Wasps can be identified by the nests they build:
- Paper wasps construct an open nest with hexagonal cells that is usually shaped like an umbrella and may contain fewer than 100 paper wasps.
- Hornets build a football-shaped nest surrounded by smooth walls.
- Bees hives have a distinctive waxy appearance.
- Yellowjacket wasps can be identified by the activity around the nest – wasps flying back and forth to a hidden location. Be careful: these nests are the ones that can contain thousands of wasps!
Normally, a wasp won’t tangle with a human. It’s live and let live – as long as you don’t freak out and start waving your arms and hands at them to go away. Wasps just hate to be swatted and will turn on you in a heartbeat, calling all their friends for help taking you down.
I am not making this up. Some bees, hornets, and wasps release an ‘alarm pheromone’ when they sting that attracts more of their kind to you. If you get stung once, leave the area immediately before the others arrive.
If you haven’t been stung and see a wasp flying around you – or worse, HOVERING – hard as it may be, do your darndest to stay calm, cool, collected. STAND STILL if a wasp flies up to check you out. It is attracted by bright colors because your flower-patterned clothing might be the real deal, after all.
Likewise, wasps like sweet-smelling lotions, perfumes, and shampoos. Once a curious wasp figures out that you aren’t a primary food source, it will normally fly away to continue its hunt.
When you go out to do some gardening or play in the yard, look around for wasp activity. Protect your feet with enclosed shoes and never leave food and drinks lying around in the open to attract the foragers. If you have left a sugary drink unattended, check to make sure a wasp hasn’t crawled inside before you take another swig.
If you do freak out or decide you have to run away, travel in a straight line without flailing your arms. Wasps that have gathered and are surrounding you are more sensitive to movement and will up their game in response to your heightened activity.
Do, however, protect your head and face, the wasps’ likely target. As one Life Hacker advised:
“Unless you’ve done destroyed their nest or something else extreme enough to cause a full-on swarm, you’re better off staying calm and moving away slowly with your head down, eyes closed, and face covered if possible.”
One pundit advised against trying to fool wasps by falling down and “playing dead” because they will continue stinging. And if you think you can dodge them by dunking under a body of water, the wasps will wait for you to re-emerge.
Most people can use a commercial spray, available in the garden or pest control departments of many stores, to vanquish a few wasps or a small nest or two. But if you find a large cache of these relentless stingers, call in the big guns.
Professional pest control companies have the means and the know-how to remove bigger wasp colonies safely.
How you deal with attacking wasps will depend on the circumstances. If you are walking in the woods and trample a wasp nest accidentally, one backpacker recommended “running like hell” as the right plan.