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Ground hornets

07/29/05 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been mowing his lawn, and finding it a hazardous exercise.


(LANGE) In the instant after the first white-hot stab of pain behind my ear, I knew just what it was.

I'd suspected there was a nest of hornets in the lawn, but I hadn't done anything about it. Now I'd run my mower close to the invisible hole and then roared right over it. They let me pass, and then they let me have it.

According to experts, hornets' nests are above ground and yellow- jackets beneath. I call them all hornets, to distinguish them from the far more even-tempered wasps. Robert Frost calls the hornet "an execrable judge of motives.... He stung me first and stung me afterward.... He rolled me off the field... and would not listen to my explanations."

One expert has this advice: "Once you hear them or they start flying out, walk away (Do NOT run)." I didn't run, but only because I can't anymore. The air was full of swarming kamikaze gleaming in the afternoon sun. I shuffled toward the garage, where I had a long-range bug bomb. I could tell they had the range of me; they were busy behind both ears, in my hair, up my sleeves, down my neck, even under my watchband.

All this agony was caused by one fertile young queen who mated last fall and spent the winter hiding in a hole in a tree or under a loose piece of bark. In the spring, she awoke, dug her own home and chewed wood pulp to make her brood cells. She never leaves her nest. But her kids sure do! All sterile females, they gather nectar, bugs and carrion to feed her larvae. In late summer, fertile females and males begin to hatch. They mate, and the females - future queens if they survive the winter - store the sperm to fertilize the next generation. The males and workers all die as the weather cools, and the nests are abandoned.

Hornets don't lose their stingers when they stab you, so they can stitch a hot seam right across any exposed flesh, or climb inside and make you take your shirt off in a hurry. Their venom contains histamine, which can cause a strong allergic reaction and an a- gent that breaks down red blood cells. People sensitive to it can lose blood pressure and go into shock.

This gang stayed with me all the way into the garage. I was brush- ing them away to attack again, squishing them when I could and picking pieces of hornet out of my clothes and hair. Finally we disengaged.

Since then, I've sneaked up on them, bombed the hole a couple of times and retrieved the lawnmower. I'm not going down there again till I know they're gone. By then, maybe my swollen ears will have quit itching and my glasses will fit again. These ladies may be only sterile workers, but they're hard to forget.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, looking for the baking soda.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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