Go Ahead Hornet, Make My Day: Dispatch from the Front Lines of the Bug Wars

Every year at this time, just as we’re enjoying favorite outdoor activities after having been bundled up, hunkered down or cooped up all winter, a Pandora’s Box of stinging, blood-sucking, destructive, disease-spreading insects threatens to spoil the fun.

The other day I plucked the first deer tick of the season off my leg, not long after garden slugs devoured my freshly planted Swiss chard and white-faced hornets starting building a nest in the eaves by our front door.

A lesser man – or perhaps a wiser one – would cower indoors, eat only store-bought vegetables and hire exterminators outfitted in hazmat suits, but I refuse to be held hostage by anything smaller than, say, Mothra, or at least a tarantula.

Deer ticks, of course, pose the most serious threat, because they spread not only such familiar afflictions as Lyme disease, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis, but also a rarer malady called Powassan, a potentially life-threatening virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that over the past decade, 75 cases have been diagnosed in the northeastern states and the Great Lakes region. Flu-like symptoms are similar to those from Lyme disease – a rash, headache and fever, but then more serious complications may develop.

"About 15 percent of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive," Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told CNN. "Of the survivors, at least 50 percent will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve,” she added. “You may develop seizures. You may develop inability to breathe on your own."


Unlike Lyme, which in most all cases can be knocked out with a course of antibiotics – I should know, having had the disease at least half a dozen times over the years – there are no known treatments for Powassan.

All right, now that I’ve gotten you good and scared, let’s put things in perspective. Seventy-five cases among tens of millions of people hardly constitute an epidemic. You’re more likely to keel over from a bee sting, which, come to think about it, isn’t really that reassuring in the context of insect danger, but you get the point.

The best protocol is prevention: Keep your skin covered, use insect repellent and check yourself for ticks after venturing into the great outdoors.

Speaking of bees, those giant carpenter bees that hover menacingly may look fearsome but are for the most part harmless – at least to humans. They do, however, bore holes in wood to build their nests and can be as destructive as termites.

I tried plugging the holes with steel wool and putty, but the bees simply drilled new ones, so I finally had to resort to chemical warfare, which I’m sad to say violates the terms of the Geneva Conventions and my own, personal anti-poison code. Online research led me to the cheapest, most effective weapon: a spray can of carburetor cleaner. One squirt in each hole has done the trick. Wear gloves, glasses and a mask.

I’m normally much more tolerant of mosquitoes, black flies and other flying pests, or at least resort to such conventional weapons as fly swatters and rolled-up magazines if they simply won’t let up. That’s when I turn into Dirty Harry.

For the most part, though, when bugs become annoying I don a head net.

Meanwhile, gypsy moth caterpillars also are now making their annual appearance, preparing to chew their way through the forest, but state entomologists are reporting that this rainy spring has triggered a fungus fatal to the ravenous creatures. Like many longtime New Englanders I’ve witnessed numerous infestations of varying intensities, and even when there has been extensive defoliation I could never justify aerial insecticide spraying, so I’m pleased that this year’s levels won’t lead to such drastic measures.

As for garden slugs and tomato worms, I’ll be trying a homemade spray of Tabasco sauce and water. If that doesn’t work I’ll stick to growing just kale and garlic – the bugs always leave them alone.

Bottom line: Be reasonably careful about ticks, don’t sweat the skeeters, and don’t let bugs ruin your summer. All the same, those hornets better know it’s time to back off when I grit my teeth and snarl, “Are you feeling lucky?”



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