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Wild Side column: Sweetness attracts stingers

A yellowjacket wasp searching for apple juice. Photo by Dan Wilcox

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Our apple crop last year was near zero because the blossoms were killed by late-spring frosts. This year our orchard produced an abundance of apples of good quality and size. We enjoy picking our orchard and making apple juice. Our cider press is a low-tech machine with a hand-cranked apple grinder and a screw-jack oak barrel press. We set it up in front of the shop to grind and press bushels of apples.

The fresh unpasteurized juice from a blend of apple varieties is delicious with sweetness and tart flavors combining to elicit rave reviews. We give away most of our juice to friends and freeze half-gallon jugs for future drinking. We often leave a half-gallon of juice in the refrigerator until the jug starts to inflate and then enjoy the sparkling and mildly alcoholic "apple jack."

When working the cider press with friends last week, the sweet apple juice attracted a swarm of yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets. Both yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets are wasps of the genus Vespidae. Bald-faced hornets are also known as paper wasps. They were intent on lapping up apple juice and didn't attack us.

Yellowjackets are colonial wasps that start to build their nests in the spring. They live in colonies of hundreds to thousands of individuals. They build concealed nests in animal burrows in the ground, in trees and in buildings. They are territorial and protective of their nests. Most incidents of people stung by yellowjackets happen when their nests are disturbed. Watch out for yellowjacket ground nests when mowing grass!

Yellowjackets become unwelcome visitors to picnics and cider presses in late summer and fall when the insects that they normally feed to their larvae become scarce. Adult yellowjackets consume nectar, so when flowers become scarce, yellowjackets are attracted to sweet liquids. Cover beverage cans and bottles when drinking outside. A yellowjacket sting on soft mouth tissue is really painful.

I was cleaning the cider press after processing apples last week and must have trapped a yellowjacket that stung the palm of my hand. Unlike a honeybee, yellowjackets have a smooth stinger and can sting multiple times. Honeybees have a barbed stinger that can't be removed and the bees are eviscerated and die after stinging. Only female "worker" yellowjackets can sting. When a yellowjacket stings, it inserts its stinger and injects venom. The venom contains proteins that can cause an allergic reaction.

Most yellowjacket stings cause some pain, redness and swelling. I put some antihistamine analgesic cream on my recent sting and that helped ease the pain and swelling. For most people, the symptoms of a yellowjacket sting may last several days but don't require a trip to see a doctor.

Yellowjacket stings can cause some people to experience an anaphylactic reaction. This can be dangerous when swelling can cause difficulty breathing or swallowing. This is a medical emergency and the person should seek medical treatment immediately. Severe allergic reactions to yellowjacket stings are usually treated with an injection of epinephrine. A doctor can prescribe an epinephrine injector (EpiPen) to those who experience serious allergic reactions to yellowjacket stings.

Yellowjackets have a bad reputation because of their stinging defense but they are important native insects that have a highly organized society. They are hard-working family-oriented colonial insects that excavate and construct elaborate nests. They are predators of caterpillars, grubs, grasshoppers and flies that they feed to their larvae, including insects that damage garden and agricultural crops. Yellowjackets also pollinate flowers.

We try to let them go about their business and they usually don't bother us. Swatting and killing yellowjackets releases an alarm pheromone that prompts others to attack. As much as it may be satisfying to swat them, there are many more and we don't want to aggravate them.