Tony Vagneur: Year of the bees

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We did some Marlboro commercials in 1978, the Year of the Horse, which seemed appropriate. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster, which I can’t relate to, but in my amateur estimation this past summer should have been the year of the bees.

Hornets, or yellow jackets, have been making themselves rather apparent in my life, enough that I’m beginning to recognize it as the “new normal.” While cutting hay, I off-handedly noticed a yellow jacket occasionally hanging around the top left corner of the tractor windshield but didn’t really register it until the next day when I washed the windshield. Suddenly there were four or five of the beasts crawling over my bare hands and arms, but if I’ve learned one thing about most situations — don’t panic.

That was when I spotted the nest, the hive, being constructed just above the glass, under the visor. They didn’t sting, didn’t attack, and I determined that if they wanted to nest above a tractor windshield it wasn’t in my wheelhouse to change the queen bee’s mind. After that first day, they no longer felt the need to check me out and they stuck with me through haying season, which afforded me the unique opportunity to witness how they nurtured and multiplied themselves over a period of time.

Bees. Wasps. Hornets. Yellow Jackets. Unless you’re making a study of them, the distinctions don’t amount to a whole lot in conversation. “Got stung by a hornet,” or, “A buncha bees came out of the ground and nailed me good.” Everyone knows what you’re talking about. If they sting you it hurts like hell and that matters. If you’re allergic, which is rare, anaphylactic shock from a sting can kill you.

When I was 4 or 5, I remember my mother complaining about yellow jackets that had begun inhabiting spaces between the logs in our very new house. She bought something in a yellow aerosol can called “Bug Bomb” at Sardy’s hardware and with eager anticipation set out to eradicate our house of the problem. She made me stay inside with the doors and windows closed and with the unerring ability of a kid to know something adult was up, I pushed a chair against the window of the door and watched.

Mom laced about five yards of the space between a couple logs with the poison before the swarm got organized and came after her with a fury that was frightening. Dropping the can, she ran toward my dad who, with a hired hand, was working on a tractor about 30 yards distant. She didn’t make it very far — without exaggeration, the yellow jackets took her down to the ground in the space of a few feet. As this naive, helpless child watched, I had no idea that I might be witnessing the beginning of her death spiral. I remember her cries for help. She was 22 or 23.

About that time, my dad and the hired hand arrived with coats flailing and managed to drive off the aroused attackers, but not before they suffered some serious stings themselves. If not for them it might have been tragic. Dr. Lewis from Aspen made the appropriate house call and a serious situation evolved into memory.

The hornets, or yellow jackets, never entirely left our house no matter the methods used to extirpate them, and an uneasy alliance was formed. As kids, we learned to leave them alone and they generally left us alone. My mother, particularly, subscribed to such logic.

There are many stories I could tell here, but for the record my first sting (multiple of three at once in my sleeping bag) occurred at cow camp with Max Vaughan and Al Senna (rest in peace boys) laughing at my gyrating antics in only my underwear, trying to escape.

Dropping into a steel irrigation box this summer in an effort to shut off the water, I felt my right foot drag across a soft spot next to the box, and before the transgression totally registered I was up to my thighs, barely able to move with a steel enclosure close around my legs.

Within a mega-second I was covered in hornets, a pissed off bunch, and with a short-sleeved shirt on I fell back on my childhood education and refused to react, other than to climb out of the box as gently as possible. Out of maybe a hundred flying buzz bombs only one of them made the effort to sting me. Chalk it up to good fortune, I reckon. Or the soap I use — or don’t.

There are folks around who know about stinging creatures, especially honey bees, and they might have more to say on the subject, guys like retired Aspen Mountain ski patroller Ed Colby. All I know is I like ’em and I’m not going to bother them unless absolutely necessary.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at