Yellowjackets on the Trail

This first hand account from American Trails contributor Lora Goerlich is a great reminder about why you need to be prepared for yellowjackets on the trail.

by Lora Goerlich


A Western Yellowjacket

Yellowjackets – the aggressive wasps that emerge from ground or cavity nests ready to do battle at the slightest provocation. From August until the first frost, these battle-minded buggers are to be feared. Not only do they sting multiple times, but as they sting, they release a pheromone trail for their associates, leading straight to the target. Their more docile, relatives include honey and bumble bees, paper and mud dauber wasps, hornets and caricature mascots. Honey and bumble bees sport fuzzy bodies; they don’t typically attack unless they are heavily provoked. Hornets, mud dauber and paper wasps commonly build visible nests among tree branches or on building structures, they are easy to avoid. Clear identification is vital to the survival of the more passive pollinators whose population numbers are dwindling.

On the trail, lead riders unknowingly stir up trouble as their horse’s hooves hit the ground near buried hives creating a wake of mayhem for the riders in the rear. Several years ago, I was the last rider in a group of seven when suddenly my mare began spinning wildly, running sideways, out of control down the trail. I flopped around like a rag doll, desperately trying to regain a balanced seat. Finally, I let go. As my right hip smashed into the ground, I watched my horse speed down the trail toward the other riders. Luckily the trail was wide, flat and absent of rocks, nothing broken but my spirit. Of course, no one in my group witnessed this event because it happened so quickly and silently, not to mention they were facing forward, happily enjoying their ride. I suffered a bruised torso, neck trauma and hip pain that lasted for over a year. I did promptly re-mount, rode about a mile, then switched horses with a friend. In the end, I dismounted and led my mare about two miles back to my truck and trailer. We were both in a lot of pain, still dazed and rattled from what took place. This event troubled my mind for a long time because I couldn’t piece together what happened.

A Southern Yellowjacket queen

A Southern Yellowjacket queen

Sadly, my horse was not able to communicate what provoked her unexpected behavior. Finally, IT dawned on me!

YELLOWJACKETS!

A week prior to my event I was scouting the same area for a ground nest that had been reported (I was employed as a park ranger at the time). I walked and drove the trail intentionally trying to agitate the wasps in an effort to pinpoint and eliminate the hive dwellers. I was unsuccessful that day but later found it, at my own expense. My experience wasn’t as bad as some I’ve heard about that have involved air medic extraction, broken bones, anaphylaxis, head trauma or facial reconstruction. It’s hard to appreciate the yellowjacket’s contributions as an insect predator when their behavior can cause life-threatening injuries.

No amount of training can prepare a horse for repetitive yellowjacket stings on their sensitive body parts. The aggressive, silent attacks are unpredictable and painful. If your normally calm and responsive horse behaves explosively or out of control, they may have picked up on the noise and vibration from a nearby ground nest of yellowjackets. That may be the only warning.

Riders – If you are riding on public land and have the misfortune of finding an active yellowjacket nest, report the exact location to park personnel immediately, then warn other riders. Contact your vet if you believe your horse needs medical assistance and consider carrying an antihistamine in your saddlebags for yourself or others.

About the Author

Lora served as a law enforcement-maintenance park ranger for twenty-five years with Metroparks of Toledo and was stationed at the “globally rare” Oak Openings Preserve. Throughout her career she was deeply committed to educating equestrians, non-equestrians and land stewards about proper trail etiquette, trail planning in natural areas, and to preserving equestrian trails. In 2011 Lora began teaching at international, national and state conferences to further encourage equestrian trail inclusion. She has been a board member for the Park Ranger Institute since 2015.

Her formal education includes an associate degree in horse production and management from The Ohio State University and a bachelor of science in environmental studies/resource management from The University of Toledo. Lora’s areas of expertise include: extensive knowledge of equestrian needs (trails and facilities), trail planning and maintenance, law enforcement issues, community involvement, best practice horse keeping, equine behavior, customer service, volunteerism, natural resource management, mounted patrol operations and multi-use-trail conflict resolution.

Lora started riding in 1986, crossing multiple disciplines before exclusively trail riding; you might also find her camping, hiking, kayaking, cross country skiing or cycling. Her current trail horses include: a Paso Fino mare, Tennessee Walker gelding and a rescued gelding of unknown background.

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