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On Six Legs by Tom Turpin - Stingers

Humans have always looked for ways to keep track of time. Natural cycles such as day and night, phases of the moon and seasons have been useful markers. Calendars are devices we use to chronicle the march of time.

The tracking of time has been so important that nearly all major civilizations developed their own calendars. There have been Aztec, Byzantine, Chinese and Roman calendars, to name a few. Today, the most widely used civil calendar is the Gregorian calendar. Named after Pope Gregory VIII, this calendar was first used in 1582. It is also called the Western or Christian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is a modification of a 12-month Roman calendar, known as the Julian calendar. The names used today for months are those from the Julian calendar. For instance, the first month of the year is January; the name is based on the ancient Roman god Janus who was the god of doors – an appropriate moniker because the month "opens" the New Year.

August is named after Caesar Augustus, the founder and first emperor of the Roman Empire. The name meant great, magnificent or awe-inspiring. September, on the other hand, apparently didn't spark any awe among the ancient people who named our months, so it was just dubbed plain, old "seventh month." It is not the seventh month of the year but the seventh month from March, the month that was the start of the year for Roman soldiers.

To entomologists and medical doctors the months of August and September are more than just the last month of summer and the first month of fall. That's because each year the highest reported number of medical cases associated with insect stings occur in August and September.

Some folks have dubbed these months as a time of "yellowjacket delirium." Delirium is defined by Mayo Clinic staff as, "a serious disturbance in a person's mental abilities that results in a decreased awareness of one's environment and confused thinking."

For sure, many people seem to go into panic mode when they encounter insects of the stinging kind, such as yellowjackets. August and September are prime times for such encounters. Yellowjackets are a type of paper wasp, so called because they construct nests of paper-like material made from chewed wood. They and other paper wasp species such as bald-faced hornets are social insects.

Social insects live in colonies consisting of three castes: a queen, workers and drones. Some social insects such as the paper wasps have colonies that exist for only one year. Such insects are said to have annual colonies. A mated queen that has survived the winter in a state of hibernation establishes each colony. The queen lays a few eggs and feeds the first developing larvae that will become workers. These workers then take over the duties of rearing additional workers. During most of the season, the paper wasps feed their developing larvae a protein diet. That protein comes primarily from other insects, but could also be from the carcass of a dead animal.

Annual wasp colonies reach population peaks during the months of August and September. Sometimes a colony might be home to 4,000 or more individuals. At this time, the workers are generally foraging for carbohydrates as food and are found around decaying or rotting fruit and any sugary human food at a picnic. The insects are also attracted to alcoholic beverages and soda pop. As you might imagine, the food habits and large numbers of the wasps combined with high numbers of human activities outdoors mean one thing – human and wasp encounters!

In general, foraging wasps are not belligerent if left alone. However, a foraging wasp may not interpret your intentions properly if you try to shoo them away from an item that they are attempting to gather food from. In addition, wasps are defensive of their nest and quick to administer stings to those who dare disturb their abode. Either way, such encounters almost always end with the human worse for the experience.

And that is why being a pacifist when confronting a yellowjacket or bald-faced hornet is always a good idea. Otherwise, you might end up being a data point for those who classify some human behavior as "yellowjacket delirium."