Field Notes: The Sting of Studying Local Food Webs
By Joe Brehm, Environmental Education Director
Though ours is one of the most benign natural regions in the world – few venomous creatures, mild climate, etc. – our ancient wooded hills are not without danger. On a recent field trip (with the same class who created windmill blades inspired by desert hares’ ears), we roamed a beautiful forest in the Sunday Creek watershed to admire the work of our local producers, consumers, and decomposers. Students searched the stream for crawdads, minnows, and salamanders; they jumped around on logs being eaten by saprobic fungi like the wrinkled peach; and this powdered tussock moth caterpillar was found attached to a student’s sock. Large oaks, hickories, beeches, and sycamores observed the whole affair as they turned sunlight to sugar – the phenomenon that makes everything else possible.
After lunch, we like to let the kids explore with less attention to scientific principles, simply enjoying the forest and stream. I took one eager group of students far upstream in search of a good grape vine for swinging. Even in the more relaxed atmosphere, I like to point things out to the kids in case it snags their interest. They eagerly sampled spicebush berries (I have learned to introduce the experience with a caveat: “This is going to taste weird”), and brought with me several species of fungi to ask, “what is this?” They investigated rock overhangs and “caves” and splashed in the creek, and took a few swings on a grapevine just above the creek bank.
Two students asked if they could run up the hill, to which I of course replied, “yes.” As they slid back down the forested slope along the creek, one of them yelped in pain, confused. As I ran towards him, my immediate instinct was confirmed – a few yellow jackets were on his shirt, trying to find their way to stingable skin. Yellow jackets (Vespula species) nest in the ground and are inconspicuous unless disturbed; the insects react to disturbance by attacking, and can sting repeatedly. In my experience, they do not pursue people very far beyond their nest, so the urgent matter at hand was to get kids out of this range. It’s one of the few acceptable times to yell to the students: “RUN!” Half my group was still behind me, however, and the nest’s location was still unknown. Thankfully the teacher, Mr. Moore, had happened to catch up with our group in this precise moment of need, and after shouting the situation to him, he saved the other half of the group from harm. After the fact, Mr. Moore said he observed a “tornado” of yellow jackets swarming above the ground and crawling over the tree roots. Hundreds, at least.
Because of the group’s vigilance and teamwork, only a few of the students got stung (Mr. Moore and I also experienced the yellow jackets’ defense mechanism firsthand). Nobody was stung more than a few times. Mr. Moore had checked medical records for any bee allergies prior to the field trip, and nobody was allergic. Our team members also carry first aid kits that include antihistamines in the event of an emergency. As quickly as it had begun, the tornado of yellow jackets disappeared back into its underground abode. When I went back for a student’s flip flop, lost as he fled the scene, no yellow jackets were visible anywhere. A few tears were shed, and one student didn’t leave my side on the walk back, but we made it through this encounter with one of the region’s few dangerous creatures relatively unscathed.
For the record, encounters with yellow jackets are more likely to occur while mowing your lawn than hiking through the forest, so it is not a logical reason to fear the forest. If you are allergic, move slowly this time of year and beware of even chipmunk-sized holes in the ground. With careful observation you can see a handful of yellowjackets going in and out of the nest before you get close enough to upset them.
Yellow jackets are in the insect order Hymenoptera (along with bees, wasps, and ants), and are a fascinating genus. In late summer and fall, their numbers are at their peak after rearing larvae all summer in a hive started by a queen. Adults feed mainly on flower nectar and decayed fruit, but they capture and chew up other invertebrates to feed their larvae. A hive of several hundred individuals must have a big impact on the insect population near the hive – primarily herbivorous insects, I would guess. They must be a strong force in the local food webs that we set out to study with these students. Amazingly, skunks can and do dig up the subterranean nests to consume the protein-rich larvae.
Mr. Moore often tells us that when he runs into former students even years after their year with him, the first thing they talk about is this field trip. I have no doubt that these young explorers will remember their hike and brush with Hymenopteran danger for years to come, and the sweetness of this memory will outlast the sting.
Bonus joke (credit goes to former AmeriCorps member and current amazing science teacher, Tim Prange): Question: what is Mozart doing right now? Answer: decomposing
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 607 volunteers who have contributed close to 20,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,904 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)