“What I like” isn’t what’s good for me. “What I like” is familiar, what’s good for me is foreign and unknown.Charles Wright
I have a memorable recollection of my first encounter with a bee, not because I was stung, but because a happy afternoon walking barefoot in the grass with my friend, Patty, was suddenly interrupted when she let out a wail of abject terror and went running to her house and her mom, thus ending our carefree barefoot wanderings for the day. She had stepped on a bee, and I reasoned from the urgency of her wail that it was an experience to be avoided, and so I did. Patty and I were only about five years old at the time. I was young enough to still be figuring out what was good in the world and what was not. Bees appeared to be in the latter category.
A few years later I was older and more experienced at nine years old and had carefully avoided bees and their murderous stings. My family was backpacking in the Olympics when we paused to rest while climbing a hill on the Dosewallips River Trail. My mother was not fond of these ascents, and she happily sat us down on the hillside while my father went ahead to scout the extent of the climb. I was holding a sandwich when I looked at my finger and saw a bee perched there, as if it belonged. And then came the sting. “Well,” I thought. “I’ve been stung by a bee, and it’s not so bad.” Then came another sting on my hand and another. The “not so bad” assessment rapidly turned to terror when I realized that I was being swarmed, as were my brother and mother. I let out the same kind of cry that had emanated from my friend Patty four years earlier, threw my arms into the air and together my brother, Pat, and I went running down the hill, leaving behind our packs where I had been sitting on a nest of yellow jackets.
I was not unfamiliar with these murderous creatures. My fear had been outweighed by my scientific interest, so I often sat next to my father when he cleaned fish at the picnic table and watched these little flying carnivores fly away with chunks of pink fish flesh clutched in their legs like claws. The pieces of fish were almost as big as the yellowjackets. I imagined them returning to their underground bee homes and frying them up in a little bee frying pan, and the image made me smile. They were mostly annoying, but I remembered at all times that they could sting me, and the memory of Patty’s mournful cry to the universe stayed with me.
So it was I uttered my own mournful cry on that August day on a hillside by the Dosewallips River, only I am certain it was magnified by the sheer quantity of bees who were chasing and stinging me.
Only they were not bees actually. Yellowjackets belong to a group of insects called ground nesting wasps. They do not lose their stingers and so can sting the hapless victim repeatedly. They do not like it when a little girl sits on their nest. I was that little girl. They did not like it. Neither did I.
Pat and I continued running down the trail. At some point we heard our father above us shout, “Run the other way.” Initially this advice made no sense, as we would be running back to the nest, but the swarm was following us wherever we ran, and my father’s reasoning was sound: If we were going to be running, we might as well run up the hill towards our destination.
Our destination that afternoon turned out to be closer than planned. We made camp as soon as we found a suitable site, a lovely spot by the river called Big Timber. My mother, who had only a few stings, covered ours with cold mud like a mama bear, then ordered us to get into our sleeping bags but not before Pat and I had counted our stings. I won the contest, thirteen on my face, more on my arms and hands, and on the backs of my legs they simply blended into an angry red mass, making them impossible to count.
It would not be my last experience with yellowjackets, nor was it the only time I sat on a nest, but I did become more skilled at identifying them after many years of hiking and never had more than two to three stings at a time. They are quite common in the Olympics, and in recent years I have noticed that the Park Service has placed signs at trailheads warning unwary hikers of the danger that lurks in the ground. I am always happy to turn to total strangers nearby and tell my story.
The photo above was taken on a hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail in the Kettle River Mountains near my present home. I discovered that if I placed a piece of beef jerky on the ground it served as a kind of decoy, and they would go after the piece on the ground instead of the one I was about to put in my mouth. Trauma becomes familiar, even comfortable, and I learned ways to make friends with yellow jackets.
That transformation began as Pat and I lay in our sleeping bags that afternoon and talked excitedly about what we had just been through. It had turned into an adventure. This was a shared adventure and a good one. The next day we continued our hike to Diamond Meadows, where we spent the next several nights camped in the shelter at the edge of the meadow. The welts were already getting smaller and started to itch like mosquito bites. Pat and I began the business of being kids in a a wild place. We waded in the river and cupped minnows in our hands. We walked across it on a log where we made an imaginary camp on a small island. And we re-enacted our adventure, running down the hill with our arms in the air until one of us would shout, “Run the other way!” And then we would turn around and run uphill, shouting and laughing and alive with adventure.