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Fire Ants and Yellow Jackets

April 14, 2013

In the year 1918, ninety-five years ago, a group of illegal aliens entered this country unnoticed through the port of Mobile, Alabama.  These immigrants, stowaways on a ship arriving from South America, soon became migrants, spreading throughout the South.  They were a prolific lot, producing many offspring.  Moving north, east, and west, they eventually reached South Carolina.

I have suffered many unpleasant close encounters of the third kind with these unwelcome invaders. Last week, I again had a painful meeting with these aliens while I was in my garden. As I was planting daylilies that I had divided last fall, I disturbed a colony of these pesky intruders. Immediately, a swarm of Solenopsis invicta, black fire ants, boiled up out of the ground covering my left arm.

Fire ants are nasty little critters. They lock their jaws into your flesh and inject venom from the other end, biting and stinging simultaneously.  

The United States Army recommends using bleach as first aid. I keep a bottle in my tool shed.  I poured Clorox on both arms, waited a few minutes, then rinsed it off with cool water. I took Benadryl last week and have used a lot of cortisone cream this week, but I am still itching from the attack.

As a boy, I was stung by honey bees, sweat bees, or yellow jackets ten or twelve times every summer. A sting was an occupational hazard when cutting grass, hiking, camping, and fishing. My grandfather offered a folk remedy for stings.  He would bite off the end of his cigar, chew it, and then slather the tobacco juice on the wound.

Over time, I have developed an allergy to stinging insects.  As a precaution, I now carry a sting kit that includes Benadryl and a prescription hypodermic of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline. The kit also contains a regular shaker of powdered meat tenderizer, which neutralizes the venom of a stinging insect by breaking down the protein.

Insect stings can be deadly. More people die in the United States every year from insect stings than from poisonous snake bites or from shark attacks.  

An allergy to stinging insects keeps you on your toes. A general rule is to expose as little skin as possible and to use insect repellent during the warm months.

I completely gave up using aftershave when my allergy was diagnosed. Instead, I use unscented rubbing alcohol, which doesn’t attract anything. I also gave up short-sleeve shirts and short pants. Believe me; the world is better for it.

Several years ago I traveled with a group of twenty-three men on a rafting trip down the Nolichucky River. As I stepped out of the van at the outfitter in Erwin, Tennessee, even before we started down the river, a yellow jacket stung me on the leg.  One of the men, who happened to have a wad of chewing tobacco, applied the familiar poultice.   It didn’t help at all.  

I began to experience my first severe allergic reaction.  My whole body turned fiery red, knots developed beneath the skin on the back of my head and neck, and my breathing became labored. There in the remote Blue Ridge, by a mountain river, I was in trouble!  

Fortunately, among the twenty-three men were my family doctor, a cardiologist, an anesthesiologist, and two pharmaceutical representatives. Before I could turn around, they had given me a dose of Benadryl.  The cardiologist, family physician, and anesthesiologist all recognized that I was having a severe anaphylactic reaction.  

The three and I raced in a four-wheel drive vehicle along a rugged logging road over a mountain to a drugstore in Erwin.  We were a motley crew, dressed as we were for a day of rafting. When my physician demanded the appropriate medications of cortisone, epinephrine, and two hypodermic needles, I am sure the pharmacist thought it was a holdup.  The pharmacist only blinked until my family doctor pulled out his wallet and presented his medical credentials.  The cardiologist monitored my pulse, the anesthesiologist my breathing. Spread out on the drugstore floor, I received a shot of cortisone in one arm and a shot of adrenaline in the other.  Soon, I was just fine.  

Chip, the anesthesiologist, revealed how relieved he was when he saw that I was recovering.  He chuckled, “We had drawn straws to see who might have to give you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  I got the short straw.”  

By the time we made our way back to the river, I was all revved up for the trek. I don’t believe the three doctors who had jumped in the raft with me had to paddle much at all. I was so pumped up on adrenaline that I rowed nonstop all day long.  I had so much cortisone in me that I never felt sore.    

Three years after our experience on the Nolichucky River, Chip, my fishing buddy, and I were headed to a trout stream that held great promise.  As Chip drove his old Jeep on a back country road in North Carolina, an insect flew into the open window and lit on the dashboard in front of me. It looked like a yellow jacket on steroids with its long distinctive black and yellow markings on the abdomen. Though I didn’t know what the insect was, I did know that it was not a good traveling companion.  

Chip quickly pulled the Jeep over to the side of the road and stopped.  He reached out his hand and grabbed that insect, which immediately stung him.  He then threw the critter out the window, scraped the sting with his pocketknife, and applied some ointment to the spot.  

“Chip, why did you do that?” I asked.  

“Listen.  I barely avoided giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation three years ago.  I didn’t want to put myself in that situation again.  Besides, I really want to go trout fishing today. If you get stung, it’s a big deal.  If I get stung, we can still fish.”

The last time a yellow jacket stung me was moments before I was to conduct a graveside funeral service. The yellow and black insect was nestled inside a floral wreath, an expression of sympathy to the family of the dearly departed. As I stood close to the casket, the insect nailed me on the bottom lip.

The funeral director and the soloist, both aware of my allergy, wondered if I might resign my role as pastor and join the ranks of the deceased. A good friend stood close by with my emergency shot. Since it had been more than ten years since my last sting, the one at the funeral was what allergists label a free sting.

Fire ant stings are, so far, not nearly as serious for me as those of yellow jackets. Still, those tiny ants pack a wallop and deliver several days of discomfort.

Recently, I learned that pyramid ants and fire ants are natural enemies. In fact, a favorite food of the pyramid variety is fire ants. The pyramid ants thrive in sunny, open spaces, usually near the nests of other kinds of ants. Their nests – small craters that resemble tiny volcanoes – are easily recognized.

I have decided to be more selective in using ant killers, eliminating only the stinging fire ants. Pyramid ants have an open invitation to my place. The buffet is always open. Come and get it!

 

Kirk H. Neely

© April 2013

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