NORTH SMITHFIELD – Here’s the situation: You’re getting settled in your first place, you just mated with the queen, and now you’re going to die.
It’s no joke if you’re a yellow jacket wasp – it’s real life. No wonder the armed fighter-jets of the insect world are so unfriendly this time of year.
It’s a lesson Mother Nature taught Jennifer Powers the hard way recently. She lapsed into shock after she was stung again and again by an agitated swarm of yellow jackets outside her boyfriend’s cabin on Tom Lee Drive.
“I was passed out, I was in a dream state, I heard someone calling my name, ‘Jennifer, Jennifer, talk to us,’” she recalled. “At the hospital, they told me I had been stung somewhere between forty and a hundred times.”
Powers was suffering from a severe allergic reaction to the venom in the wasp stings known as anaphylaxis. It makes an encounter with yellow jackets, hornets or any other kind of wasp potentially fatal for Powers as well as others who are similarly afflicted.
For everyone else, getting stung just plain hurts.
Just ask Tony Longo, Powers’ boyfriend. He absorbed an estimated two-dozen stings in the face as he frantically tried to swat the horde of attacking insects away from Powers with his baseball cap.
“All I heard were these blood-curdling screams and I saw she was covered in yellow jackets,” said Longo. “It all happened so fast.”
Medical personnel told Longo that, by giving the ornery insects an alternative target for their stingers, he may have prevented them from delivering an otherwise lethal dose of their venomous payload to Powers. Still, he gives most of the credit for saving her life to rescue workers.
“They say God creates life, but they save it,” said Longo, a former microbiologist who has worked as a sculptor for much of his adult life.
North Smithfield Fire Chief Joel Jillson says two departments actually deserve praise for pulling Powers back from the brink. In addition to North Smithfield personnel, a team of paramedics from Woonsocket also responded because they happened to be in the area on an unrelated mutual aid call. He specifically singled out Capt. Normand Malboeuf and Pvt. Michael Renaud of North Smithfield and Lt. Peter Cournoyer and Pvt. Joseph Glode from the city.
Jillson himself was among the emergency responders who answered calls for help at Longo’s log home, near Goodwin’s Farm, on Sept. 13.
“The bees were just covering her face,” recalled Jillson. “There were so many bees on it her face was not visible.”
Powers was unconscious and displayed the classic symptoms of someone who was going into shock – low blood pressure and rapid heart beat.
She started coming around shortly after paramedics administered a dose of epinephrine, a type of stimulant, from a portable injection device known as an Epi-Pen. All rescue squads and fire trucks carry them.
There was also one somewhere in a kitchen drawer at Longo’s house, and he searched for it feverishly in the moments before Powers collapsed on his living room floor. The Epi-Pen was never intended for Powers’ use, however – he had obtained one for himself because he’s vulnerable to several common allergens. Luckily, wasp venom isn’t one of them.
It turned out rescue workers arrived before Longo ever found the Epi-Pen.
“That’s a lesson for me, too,” said Longo. “Know where it is.”
Powers, 41, had been attacked by a stinging insect once in the past and she felt pretty lousy afterward, but she had no idea how acutely allergic she was to wasp venom.
She and Longo were in the front yard moving a tubed-up swatch of discarded carpet that had been sitting there for some time when she was stung. They found out later from an exterminator that the wasps had somehow nuzzled into a tiny opening in the roll to make a nest. Experts say they typically build the papery enclosures in snug areas safe from the elements – in the eaves of houses, under decks, even in the ground.
Powers was conscious long enough to reenter the house and jump in the shower, which she thought might help wash away some of the bugs. They’d flown under her clothing and she felt like they were all over her.
After she got out of the shower she felt her throat closing up and realized she was having trouble breathing. The last thing she heard was the sound she was making trying to gulp air that wasn’t reaching her lungs. She thought she was going to die, and so did Longo.
While the insect attack caught the couple by surprise, pest control pros and bug scientists say yellow jackets not only reach their peak numbers, but become most aggressive, during the late summer and early fall. Yellow jackets in particular are typically drawn to picnics and other outdoor gatherings where food is served (think Autumnfest) as they search for nourishment, especially the sweets they crave.
“Yellow jackets can be found any place humans can be found,” according to Northeast Pest Control. “Yellow jackets become more aggressive in autumn when the colony begins to die out, except for the queen.”
There are actually several species of yellow jackets, which are uniquely distinguishable by the signature pattern of black and yellow stripes on their abdomens. They are equipped with a needle-like stinger rippled with tiny barbs. Unlike some species of stinger-carrying insects, yellow jackets can redeploy their poison pinchers again and again without harming themselves.
Other than annoying and injuring humans, the purpose wasps serve in the ecosystem may not be as immediately obvious as that of, say, the honeybee. But entomologists say wasps are like the sharks of the insect world. They are social predators, hunting in packs, killing and eating other insects that are often troublesome for food crops.
Yellow jackets don’t survive longer than a single generation, which for them means just a few warm-weather months of they year. The only exceptions are the future hive queens born at the tail end of the life-cycle; they are capable of overwintering in sheltered areas.
In the spring, the young queens emerge to build new nests, starting out with just a few dozen eggs. It takes all the way until mid-summer for the first adult yellow-jackets to emerge, but the hive continues to repopulate for the rest of the season, by which point a single colony can easily consist of more than 10,000 wasps.