Pete Zimowsky: When yellow jackets attack, run for the Subaru

Hunters become the hunted when swarmed by angry insects.

September 19, 2013 

A dusky grouse blasted from the ground and disappeared into a huge, thick Douglas fir.

It looked promising that my wife and I were going to get into the birds on a hunting trip in the Boise Mountains last week.

Phoebe, our golden retriever, was hot on the scent of the bird and looking up in the trees. She knew it flushed and saw it go skyward. We were so intent on looking for a silhouette of the bird in the tree branches that we hardly noticed Phoebe rolling on the ground.

“What the heck, dog? You’re supposed to be hunting, not playing around and scratching your back.”


She was distracted from the scent of birds by something tangled in her tail. Then she did a back flip and was trying to chew at her tail.

I grabbed her tail and started picking out what I thought were stickers.

Yikes! They weren’t stickers. They were yellow jackets!

Before we knew it, yellow jackets were dive-bombing us from every direction. They especially zeroed in on the dog and wouldn’t let up. She was going crazy trying to get away.

I had one crawl up my sleeve, and I got stung on the wrist. My wife got stung on the neck.

We ran down the hill out of the trees, which wasn’t easy with the downed timber and tangled brush, but we made it to the road.

They were still dive-bombing us, so we high-tailed it down the road to the car.

I can’t believe I left a grouse dinner sitting in the tree, but the yellow jackets were ferocious. By the time we got to the car, they were still buzzing around us.

We quickly brushed Phoebe to get several of them out of her fur. They were burrowing down deep to get in a few stings. We got into the car, rolled up the windows, and watched as they buzzed around outside.

What an experience. I’ve never run into anything like it in my 45 years of grouse hunting.

We had been hunting all that morning and had no trouble. Maybe it was because the temperatures in the mountains were much cooler in the morning and the yellow jackets weren’t as active.


But the hunt after lunch turned out to be a wake-up call about wasps and hunting.

Phoebe was biting at the stings on her tail and was just plain miserable while we drove down the road looking for a water hole where she could swim.

I couldn’t believe how Phoebe got the worst of it. She disturbed the ground nest and was immediately the target.

When wasps attack and sting, they leave a scent that signals other yellow jackets that the animal or person is the aggressor. You had to see it to believe it. It’s a defensive mechanism where they know the enemy has been marked and they’re aggressively going in for the kill.

We apparently stumbled on a ground nest where there could have been a thousand wasps.

My wife and I only got buzzed randomly. The squadron of yellow jackets had their radar locked on Phoebe. The poor dog escaped with several bad stings despite the yellow jackets being imbedded in her thick fur from head to rear.

We managed to get Phoebe into a deep pool in a creek where she would have stayed all day if we hadn’t had to get home. At home we put a cone on her neck so she couldn’t chew at the bites. Daily swims in the Boise River also helped, along with Benadryl tablets and hot-spot spray.

We watched her for any signs of sting reactions, but luckily, she was OK.

The reason I’m telling this story is because it’s a bad year for yellow jackets across the West from Colorado to California. The Internet is buzzing with stories about problems.

Reports have been bad from the Middle and Main forks of the Salmon River, too.

There are a lot more yellow jackets this year because a mild winter in many parts of Idaho allowed for more queens to survive, resulting in more colonies. Hot, dry weather in June and July contributed to the rapid growth of wasps from egg to adult.

Couple that with late summer going into fall and the yellow-jacket workers are short of food, so they’re pretty ornery.

Yellow jackets are actually interesting if they’re not stinging you. They are beneficial because they eat pest insects.

Idaho has 11 species of yellow jackets, according to the University of Idaho. Normally, only four pose a threat for stings. They are the western, common, German and aerial yellow jackets.

Let’s just say I didn’t stand around to do bug identification. All I know is that they had yellow bands on their bodies, and that was enough for me.

What I learned from this unwanted adventure is to scope out an area more closely before charging through the woods. I know, a flushing bird is a lot of enticement, but be aware of your surroundings.

We hiked through some clean areas where there wasn’t any deadfall and only healthy grass between the trees. Then we hit an area with rotten logs and brush and stingaroo! That’s where we were chased after flushing the grouse.


Keeping clear of yellow jackets also means keeping a clean camp. Clean up all food scraps after a meal and wipe down the table. Yellow jackets are especially attracted to meat scraps, or anything sweet, like spilled soda pop.

Luckily they are not really aggressive when foraging, like buzzing around your picnic lunch. Don’t swat at them. That’s where you get nailed.

Also, tap your can of soda pop before taking a swallow. They’ll go into the can when you’re not looking.

They’re also attracted by bright colors and perfumes. Ha! Camo clothing has another advantage.

If you are stung, you can treat the wound with Benadryl and a cold compress. If the sting becomes infected, such as through scratching, an antibiotic may be needed.

As with all stings, there can be an allergic reaction. Watch the person carefully for any signs of tightness of the throat, nausea and vomiting, difficulty of breathing, cramping, abdominal pain or fainting.

Those who have allergies are advised to carry an epinephrine injector like an Epi Pen when out hunting or hiking.

Well, both of our stings have healed. Phoebe seems to be fine except for an embarrassing bald spot on her tail.

Sure hope she doesn’t associate grouse hunting with getting beat up by yellow jackets.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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