Summer in Appalachia means dealing with Yellowjackets. One their favorite tricks is claim a spot on your property and defend it with hundreds of ill-tempered little Warriors. I have scars from my battles with them. Not from the sting, which is relatively mild, but from colliding with inanimate objects while trying to escape the Swarm. These creatures are even at the root of my real life survival story. Perhaps I’ll tell the whole story.
In Appalachia we are one of the most productive ares for American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.). While taking forestry classes I decided that working as a digger (One who collects wild medicinal plants and sells them to exporters) to supplement my tuition money. At the time Ginseng was considered “green gold” and one pound of the dried roots would cover a large portion of my tuition. About two miles into the forest I encountered a large patch of Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). While not as expensive as Genseng the Cohosh is far more plentiful. Some quick math told me that I could make more money on the hour by collecting the more plentiful resource in spite the large price difference. So I removed my pick from my collection bag and began to dig. I didn’t notice the tiny little tunnel next to mass of plants and with the first impact of the tool the fight was on. With my pick still in hand I began to plow through the bushes with all of the Yellowjackets in hot Pursuit.
A small tree had fallen in the path and as I tried to jump over it my left foot became entangled in the branches. As I went down I could see my foot turn 180 degrees backwards and I knew my ankle had broken. The momentum from fall carried me over an embankment and I began rolling head over heels off the mountain side. At some point during the roll I realized that I was still holding the bare pick. If I landed on the long spike it would be “game over”. I managed to let it go at the right moment for it to be thrown clear. Next, on my other side was a rather large Bowie Knife that I used as small machete. It was coming out it’s sheath and there was nothing I could do. Just then I felt the impact of a small tree across my back and the world stopped spinning. I took a breath and checked for injuries. Aside from the broken ankle I was intact. With my left foot now pointed in the proper direction I tried to stand up. No good. The pain was too intense. There was no way I was going to belly crawl the two miles back to my truck. Since the knife managed to stay in its sheath I had a tool to cut down a seedling tree and fashion a makeshift crutch. It was a slow painful process but I managed to get back to my truck before dark. I lost a month of work while the broken bones healed and to this day that ankle is still unsteady. Now, I can’t say that I have completely made peace with the Yellowjackets. I have however come to appreciate their role in the environment. They are first and foremost predators on many pests that invade gardens and damage trees. A couple of years ago I killed a mouse out of my tool shed and by the time I was able to grab a shovel to toss the mouse away the Yellowjackets had stripped it to the bones. (It took the swarm about 30 seconds). I still don’t allow them build nests in my yard but I am getting more comfortable with them and if I didn’t know better I’d think they are getting more comfortable with me. Sometimes I think that they can smell fear and that’s why they chase you. The image above was taken with my phone. I eased up on the Yellowjacket and it didn’t seem to do anything but flip it’s antennas at me as if to say hello. Then, it turned and went about it’s business. Maybe, just maybe, it’s true that they are more scared of us than we are of them.