Summer and early fall is when the Massachusetts bees and wasps do their thing — and that can involve stinging when they sense a threat.
They have a hard time in the drought – and that can make them tense as they prepare for the coming winter.
The cure, experts say, is to understand these insects and separate fact from myth.
Honeybees, yellowcoats and bald hornets are all active in August and early September.
They forage for supplies to raise their young, and honeybees have the added burden of providing beehives for the winter.
Due to the drought, honeybees are particularly active this summer.
“We’ve had a period of such dry and dry weather, so the nectar and pollen weren’t readily available to them,” said Kathy Balestrier, vice president of Essex County Beekeepers Association. “So they were more out and about finding means to bring back to the hive.”
Honeybees harvest both nectar and pollen to feed their young and to produce enough honey to keep the colony through the winter.
They’re also desperate for water, said Balestrier, who works for New England Beekeeping Supplies at The Colony in Tyngsboro.
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“They need a lot of water to cool their hives,” Balestrier said. “They will basically deposit water and then fan out their wings to cool their hives.”
While people are likely to see honeybees, they are unlikely to be stung by them. “They’re usually very docile, gentle bees,” Balestrier said. “They can only sting once and then they die — so their goal is not to sting you.”
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On the other hand, yellowcoats and bald hornets – both wasp species – are more aggressive and can sting multiple times.
Sam Hamlin, a resident of Ipswich, has been a beekeeper for the past seven or eight years.
Hamlin said honeybees will sting if a person bumps into them, or if they sense the hive is under threat. Hamlin said a honeybee releases an alarm pheromone that mobilizes others in the hive to go on the defensive.
“It’s typical at this time of year that yellow jackets are much more aggressive,” Hamlin said. “But even bees become more aggressive as the season progresses because they have more to defend.”
Yellowjackets eat a wide variety of foods – including the ham on a ham sandwich.
“That’s why they hurt their necks at picnics,” Hamlin said.
In the UMass Extension factsheet on yellow jackets, the late entomologist Robert Childs wrote, “For most of the year they are considered beneficial because they feed on caterpillars and nuisance flies. However, at the end of the summer they change their diet of these high-protein foods to those high in sugar, which explains why they are drawn to overripe fruits, sugary drinks, and fatty foods.”
Preventing a sting is the ‘best possible’
For most people, a single sting from a bee or wasp is painful, but not serious, and usually causes a border or discoloration in the area of the sting. For someone with an allergy to the venom, a reaction could be more severe.
“Prevention is always the best thing possible,” says Dr. Allan Kuong, emergency care specialist at Emerson Health Urgent Care, with offices in Littleton and Hudson. “If you see a well-known beehive, try to stay away from it.”
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Some wasp species build nests in hard-to-find places.
“Sometimes you have ground wasps. Of course you don’t see that. Only after you mow the lawn do you find out very quickly,” said Kuong. “Look under the porch, the railings, and so on.”
Environmental conditions, such as drought, can have an effect. Kuong said he and a colleague were looking for paper wasp nests.
“Because it’s been so dry lately, they’re nesting in the bushes, where there’s some berries and some moisture,” Kuong said.
Allergic reactions to stings
Anaphylaxis is the often life-threatening allergic reaction to antigens, including those in food, insect venom, or some medications. A severe reaction can cause symptoms such as closing of the airways, wheezing, sneezing, hoarseness, loss of consciousness and even death.
The standard drug is epinephrine, taken by injection, which relaxes the narrowing of the airways.
An article in the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine notes that rates have doubled in the past two decades, with 1,500 deaths a year — most of which are preventable.
Anyone with an allergy should always have their medication on hand.
Fighting fears with facts
A fear of bee or wasp stings is not irrational, but balance is key.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we are all afraid of creatures that can sting, bite or cause damage, or cause pain. That’s a completely natural instinct,” said Kristy Cuthbert, an administrative clinical and postdoctoral fellow. at the Boston University Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.
Cuthbert said, “If you see one and you go the other way, it’s because you don’t want to get stung. If you have to let a friend explore the area before you go there, that starts to get in the way of you to enjoy life.”
An allergic reaction to stings can make a person more cautious, which is normal, Cuthbert said.
“Where phobias start is pretty broad,” Cuthbert said. “It could happen because you’ve been stung by a real hornet, or you’ve read about a ‘killer hornet’.”
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“Murder hornet” is a popular term for the northern giant hornet, which caused a commotion when it was first sighted on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 2019.
According to the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach Project and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, there are no confirmed sightings in Massachusetts.
What’s more, they look like some local hornets – only bigger. That said, the Massachusetts Apiary Program is recording reports of suspected sightings.
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Likewise, the threats honeybees face from parasites, climate change, habitat loss and other factors can cause fear, Cuthbert said. The state has outlined its plan for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
“One tip we give people when we start working with them is to always check the facts,” Cuthbert says. “People can worry a lot about world affairs in general. It’s about looking it up, finding the truth.”