Question: I have this fear that while I'm gardening or mowing I'm going to unwittingly disturb a beehive or step on a wasp nest. Do you have any tips so I can avoid them? Am I being silly?
Answer: You're not being silly. Everyone is afraid of something, and finding a beehive or wasp nest while gardening or mowing is not totally beyond the realm of possibilities. Here is some info to help you feel more prepared and secure while you're enjoying your yard work.
To avoid disturbing a nest, observe your surroundings. Your first clue to the presence of a hive or below-ground nest may be numerous insects flying to and from one place. Avoid that place. Potential nesting sites include hollow tree trunks, dense shrubs and in the ground under tall grass.
Avoid single bees or wasps when you see them. Should one be investigating your compost pile, pollinating your flowers or sipping from the puddle under your watering can, leave it alone while you attend to some other chore. Try again later.
Don't wear perfume or cologne or use scented soap before going out to the garden.
Wear dull and/or light colors, long pants and long sleeves and a hat or cap. You may want to carry a mosquito veil with you, the type that goes over your face and head. Stinging insects often fly around the top of their targets, so you could protect your head while you move away. Alternatively, should you be attacked, try to pull your shirt up over your head and the lower part of your face (leaving a gap through which to see).
Should a bee or wasp land on you, either hold still and wait for it to leave or calmly, gently brush it away. Swatting it may prompt it to sting, as will jerky movements. Wasps' vision is keyed to the quick, angular motions of other insects, so if you start wildly punching and flapping, they will panic and sting. If you move slowly and smoothly, they won't respond.
If you do get stung, remove the stinger as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of venom released into the skin. The site will be red, swollen, painful and perhaps itchy, even for a few days. Wash the area and apply a cold compress as soon as possible. Apply an antihistamine cream and consider taking an oral antihistamine. If the reaction is severe (heavy swelling, hives, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, headache, dizziness, swelling in the throat, difficulty in breathing, fainting), seek medical attention.
If you disturb a nest and they attack, run as fast as you can, through thick brush if available. The brush will knock the insects off.
You probably don't want to think about this scenario, but should you be swarmed, you most likely will not die, although you will be in pain and potentially very ill. A healthy, non-allergic adult would have to be stung more than 1,000 times for an attack to be fatal. In most deaths by multiple stings, the victim has been an elderly person with a heart condition. That said, anyone stung multiple times should seek medical help, even if they feel more or less okay. There could be side effects that crop up in the week following the incident.
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Bees can be your friends. Become a backyard beekeeper with the book Keeping Bees and Making Honey.