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April 23, 2022

Last Friday, Good Friday morning, our nine-year-old granddaughter burst into our bedroom. The child was terrified.

“I have just seen the largest wasp in the world!”

“Where did you see it?” I asked through my early morning fog.

“In the lamp at the bottom of the stairs!

“Did you see it or hear it?”

“Both. I saw it and heard it. Papa Kirk, I am not exaggerating. This thing is huge!”

Clare hugged our granddaughter and assured her that everything would be alright. Together they went to the pantry to retrieve a flyswatter. Now fully armed, Clare stood guard at the bottom of the stairs and sent the girl back upstairs to finish getting ready for school. The intruding insect was nowhere to be heard or seen. It stayed incognito throughout the day.  

That afternoon, when our grandchildren had returned home from school, our seven-year-old was reading in the living room. She heard a loud buzzing sound above her head. The critter had shown itself again. It was caught behind the sheer curtains in front of a large bay window. Obviously, the giant bug was trying to escape.

Our youngest granddaughter called for Clare, who went to the rescue. Clare enfolded the insect on the sheer curtain and sent the child to find Betsy, her mother. Like her father, Betsy is allergic to stings. She came with a plastic cup and a magazine. She and Clare worked together to imprison the interloper. Once the capture was made, I was called to identify the insect. While I am certainly not an entomologist, I immediately knew these brave women had managed to corral a giant hornet.  

What to do now? From an insect collecting science project, Clare remembered that fingernail polish remover would euthanize these varmints. Betsy slipped a gauze pad soaked in the elixir under the cup. The hornet died. No one in the family was stung during this encounter.    

In the year 1918, more than 100 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.    Moving north, east, and west, they eventually reached South Carolina. They were a prolific lot, producing many offspring.  

I have suffered many unpleasant, close encounters of the third kind with these unwelcome invaders. Several years ago, I had a painful meeting with these aliens while I was in my garden. As I was planting daylilies that I had divided, 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 every day the following week and used a lot of cortisone cream. A week later, I was still itching from the attack.

A sting is an occupational hazard when cutting grass, hiking, camping, and fishing. As a boy, I was stung by honey bees, sweat bees, or yellow jackets ten or twelve times every summer. 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. Every year, more people die in the United States from insect stings than poisonous snake bites or 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.

More than fifty 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, a yellow jacket stung me on the leg even before we started down the river.  One of the men, who happened to have a wad of chewing tobacco, applied the familiar poultice.   It didn’t help at all.  

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

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

The three physicians and I climbed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and rumbled 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, and the anesthesiologist my breathing. Spread out on the drugstore floor, I received a cortisone shot in one arm and an injection of adrenaline in the other.  Soon, I was just fine.  

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.

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. The insect nailed me on the bottom lip as I stood close to the casket.

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. It had been more than ten years since my last sting. The one at the funeral was what allergists label a free sting. That is to say that after a long time between stings, the next one is unlikely to cause a severe reaction.

At the funeral, I read a different scripture passage than the one I had planned. Instead, I read I Corinthians 15: 54-55.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.

  Where, O death, is your victory?

  Where, O death, is your sting?”

I told a story. Three years after our experience on the Nolichucky River, the anesthesiologist and I were regular fishing buddies. Early one warm spring morning, we headed to a trout stream that held great promise.  As he 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 realize that it was not a good traveling companion.  

My friend 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.  

“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.”

My friend took the sting for me. That is the point the Apostle Paul made in the scripture passage. Through his death, Christ has taken the sting of death for us.

Fire ant stings are, so far, not nearly as severe 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. 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. In fact, the favorite food of the pyramid variety is fire ants.

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 available. Come and get it!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, (864) 583-1628.

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