Sunday, August 4, 2013

Attacked By Bees

              by Laura Crum                                   

            A wise person (and I think it might have been Aarene, at Haiku Farm, listed on the sidebar) once said, as we discussed the need to wear a helmet while riding a gentle horse, “It only takes one bee.”  I would add, “Any horse can fall.” But it’s the bees I want to talk about today. Because I was recently treated to a very good demonstration of the bee issue.
            In our part of the world one of the biggest dangers for horsemen and hikers is yellow jackets—a sort of ground wasp. Some people call them “meat bees,” but I believe them to be wasps. They nest in the ground. And in my own lifetime I have known literally dozens of people, some riding, some walking, who disturbed such a nest, not knowing it was there. And the yellow jackets attacked.
            They seriously do attack. The horse (or person or dog) does not get stung once or twice. They get stung dozens of times, if lucky. The yellow jackets swarm them and pursue them and sting relentlessly.
            The best defense is to run. The one and only time this happened to me I was riding in the mountains on a green four year old. He crowhopped and tried to bolt at the first sting, and I had the wit to understand what was happening and encouraged his bolt into a controlled long trot and we got the hell out of there. He probably only got stung a couple of times and we were fine. But it doesn’t always happen like that.
            A very good friend of mine who is a competent horse trainer was taking some beginners for a ride last summer and they disturbed such a nest. My friend was thrown when his gentle horse began bucking uncontrollably, as was a very young beginner girl. The child was also stung numerous times. Everybody survived, but it was not a good moment.
            And this time of year (late summer/early fall) is the dangerous season for yellow jackets. I actually limit my trail riding in August and September to dirt roads and places where I doubt I will disturb a nest. But this is no guarantee, as recent events proved.
            We gather together with friends a couple of times a week in the summer to ride and rope at my uncle’s arena.  We’ve been doing this all year. And last week, to our great surprise, a horse that was tied along the fence where we tie horses every single roping day, managed to disrupt a yellow jacket nest, which was there in the ground, right in the tie-up area. The yellow jackets swarmed the horse and he began bucking, kicking and pulling back violently.
            For a moment no one knew what to do. The owner started toward her horse, but realized the danger of approaching him, as he was kicking out in a blind frenzy. In another second we all realized that the only safe way was from the other side of the fence. The owner scrambled over the fence and cut the leadrope (getting stung numerous times in the process), freeing the horse, who galloped away, bucking and leaping in the air.
            It took awhile, but the horse was caught, and the vet was called. The horse was swelling up with hives and eventually got a shot of “dex” and some Banamine and was sent home. The owner later reported that her horse colicked that night. The hives persisted for a couple of days, but eventually the horse was fine. The rest of us were pretty freaked out, however.
            My uncle destroyed the yellow jacket nest the next night, but we all avoided that area of the arena, anyway. And then, yesterday, the dog disturbed a nest (somewhere nearby, we didn’t see where) and came running in with yellow jackets stinging her. One of the ropers got stung. All I could think about was what if they swarm my son’s horse?
            It didn’t happen that day, but it IS a serious risk. Even a bombproof horse will come unglued when swarmed by yellow jackets. I gave my son a short talk about staying aware and getting Henry away as fast as possible if there was any sign of yellow jackets bothering the horse. But no one knows better than I do that it isn’t always possible to protect yourself. If you step right in a nest, you are toast.
            And as for my idea that I can prevent this sort of disaster by riding only on reasonably well used dirt roads and avoiding little used trails, it’s obviously a worthless concept. Because our friend’s horse stepped in a nest that was located in a place where we all tied our horses—each and every time we roped. A well traveled spot for sure. I guess it was just luck that the nest wasn’t actually disturbed until that day. But clearly if it could happen under those circumstances, it could happen anywhere.
            So here’s my question for today. Does anyone else have any insights on this subject? Any experiences you’d care to share? And most important, any survival tips?


Dom said...

Last fall I was doing an 80 mile CTR on a friend's Arabian gelding. We got three miles from the finish line and stumbled upon a nest of yellow jackets. A group of hunting dogs had disturbed the nest a few minutes prior. I was leading in a group of three riders when my horse suddenly started balking. He is a very honest and forward horse and the behavior was unusual. I looked down and saw his shoulder completely covered in hundreds of yellow jackets. It took a moment for my brain to register what was going on, and then I had just enough time to think, "The next thirty seconds of my life is going to really suck," before the stinging started. I kicked and kicked my gelding, chasing him into a gallop, but it was too late. We both got stung repeatedly. I had bees in my shirt and helmet and crawling on my legs and arms. The horse got stung all over his face, neck, chest, legs, and belly. One of the riders I was with, a gentleman in his late 70's, got thrown from his mare as she tried to escape the bees. It was a miserable, miserable experience and probably the only time I've cried during an endurance ride.

Laura Crum said...

Ouch, Dom, that's awful. I remember you posting about it. I have to say that this swarmed by bees thing and a horse falling with me are the two biggest fears I have when I ride. I really don't worry much otherwise. But you can't really protect yourself against these two potential disasters--good judgement and riding a solid horse just doesn't always help.

I have to admit I laughed at "The next thirty seconds of my life is going to really suck." You have such a good way with words. But I bet it was more than thirty seconds of suck.

Dom said...

It was about ten minutes of getting stung. Then about a week of being unbearably itchy. The first thirty seconds were the worst, though. Your instinct says to swat the bees, but your brain screams, "That'll make it worse!!!"

Laura Crum said...

You're so right that if you swat at them it makes it worse. I have seen that demonstrated, when they were stinging a kid that disturbed them (my brother--years ago). I kept yelling at him to run (as I ran) and he kept stopping to swat at them, which infuriated them. He got stung pretty thoroughly.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I'm allergic to yellow jackets, and I have an Epipen in my purse. Probably should have it on me when I ride away from the barn. This is one reason why I, too, am careful outside in August/September. As it gets drier, the wasps get meaner and more aggressive. We camped one time near a nest when our son was very young, and it was difficult but survivable (we left without getting stung).

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--They do seem to be just everywhere this time of year. We were hiking on the beach one day and were bothered by yellow jackets--but not stung. I never expected them on the beach.

Val said...

This happened at a family barbecue a few years ago. The nest was in the ground where everyone was waiting for food. It was scary because there were some really small kids there, but luckily the kids did not get stung.

My survival tip is to always have benadryl on hand.

TBDancer said...

Vinegar is a good "sting reducer"--it also works on jellyfish stings at the beach, or so I'm told. About 15 years ago I got into a nest of yellowjackets at our local regional park--my OTTB (though I did not know that at the time--I just thought he was an idiot ;o)was freaked out at the prospect of trail riding (looking back, he thought it was a race, I'm sure) and I was lungeing him away from the crowd to calm him down (also a mistake). The wasps went after ME, and I was stung probably 50 times. They sting through clothing, I found out. Not a big fan of that particular area of the park to this day.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Val, that's a good tip.

TBDancer--It seems like we've all had some experience of this particular disaster. And that's the scary thing--its relatively common.

RiderWriter said...

Having grown up in NJ, where Dom lives now, I can attest to the fact that we have Yellow Jackets there and plenty of 'em. I myself never disturbed a nest, either on foot on horseback, but I certainly knew people who had!

I've only been stung twice in my life and both times I think it was a Yellow Jacket, but fortunately not part of a swarm. Just a lone individual who felt like nailing my foot or my finger. In fact, I still have a little mark on my finger from when one got me on the playground in 3rd grade - yes, more years ago than I care to admit!

That would be SUPER_scary to have a horse disturb a nest. I hope that never happens to any of us. Laura, glad you have discussed the possibility with your son, though; nobody has ever told me what to do if the horse is stung by one or many insects. I've ridden out a few bucks due to horse flies here in MO, I can tell you that!

FD said...

We don't have yellowjackets in the same way in the uk. About the closest thing are hornets which are bad news but not that common. Our wasps are not nearly so irascible. I've only once come across yellowjackets, while trail riding at the camp I talked about earlier. We were sort of lucky and unlucky - the nest was disturbed by a falling branch but we were already bowling along at a fast trot so my horse was the only one badly stung and I managed to stay with it. Unfortunately, the only rider stung was the kid who was allergic. We carried two epipens and I used both of them before we got her to meet the truck to take her to hospital. Seriously scary. I would always take an epipen with me now if I rode or hiked in remote lications, because I've seen for myself the unpredictability of allergic reactions.

AareneX said...

Yep, it was me who said that about bees...and I really do mean yellowjackets, but most muggles respond more strongly to the *word* "bees," don't ask me why. So, even when it isn't technically correct, I usually use the word "bees."

Here's a post I wrote years about about yellowjackets:

The event we just completed is known for having "bees"--the ride manager notes this on the ride flyers, and encourages riders IN WRITING and IN PERSON to carry an epi=pen and/or benedryl even if they have never had a bad reaction to stings. And sure enough: some folks got stung, including Fiddle, but she just gave a quick hop and then hustled down the trail.

My best advice while travelling in bee/yellowjacket country:
* keep your group small. The first horse wakes them up, the second makes them mad, and everybody beyond that gets hit.

* remember that bees/yellowjackets are territorial, and they are defending the nest. If you cross their perimeter, they WILL attack, no matter what kind of repelling toxin you spray on yourself.

* Some colors incite action from stinging insects faster than others. Avoid yellow, orange, red and white--stick to green, blue, grey or black if possible.

* MOST important: be ready to RUN. As others have said, standing still to swat is bad practice. Even if it's downhill, even if the footing is dicey: beat feet fast. It's your best defense.

If you do get stung, take a benedryl immediately. Treat the site with ice asap to reduce the swelling/itching. Baking soda helps, and anti-itch creams do too. I've never had to treat a horse for stings, but I'd use ice there, too.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks all for the comments and suggestions. I just put Benadryl and an epi-pen in my truck--in preparation for riding at the arena today. Hope I don't need them.

IanH said...

I was on a quarter horse and had just kicked her up into a lope when she got nailed in the belly. She went sideways and bucked. It cost me a dislocated shoulder.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

As FD said we don't have yellow jackets in the UK, and that sounds like a very good thing.

When I worked in Eastern Europe we had a rider bucked off because of a wasp sting on a mare's nether regions and that cost the lady a broken shoulder blade. Fortunately it was the only such incident in eight years and fifteen thousand miles.

However another riding operation nearby suffered a fatality because of a sting - the rider proved to be allergic, wasn't carrying medication and the guide hadn't packed a first aid kit. It all happened in a remote place and medical assistance couldn't be summoned in time.

Anonymous said...

I was out with my 20 year old horse and a friend and her new horse, we stepped into ground bee's TWICE on a otherwise wonderful ride. My horse proved his weight in gold, he stood, shaking did not spook, run, buck, I got off to help him, the first time that worked, the second time I was stung multiple times as were both horses, Mine never left me, even when I sent him away, again, worth his weight in gold. We will be more aware when riding.