Fall is a favorite time of year for trail riding and nowhere more so than here in Jamestown, Tennessee, in Big South Fork National Park. With daytime temperatures in the 70's, riders enjoy those mellow fall days when the woods are a medley of reds and golds.
But riders are the only ones who get out there in the fall; riders must always be alert for ground nests of yellow jackets which commonly build nests below ground in old rodent burrows or other cavities such as rotten tree stumps or fallen logs, fence post bases or river banks and the edges of forested land. They are common in banks of dirt along the edges of the trail. The problem with ground nests is that you don't know they're there until you're on top of them and by then, it's too late! During "bee season" riders can minimize the risk of disturbing a ground nest by staying in the middle of the trail.
These so-called "ground bees" are not bees at all but a type of highly aggressive wasp in the hornet family, although they look a lot like bees with their black and yellow striped bodies. They are particularly dangerous in the fall, when the population of the nest is at its peak. Yellow jackets are highly defensive and will become very antagonistic when their nest is approached. Any vibration or loud noise can provoke this swarming behavior so trail riders must be particularly mindful. As the horse's hooves hit the ground, the vibrations can be felt in the ground nests, getting the yellow jackets stirred up. Usually one or two horses will pass without incident and then the riders and horses behind may suddenly be surrounded by stinging yellow jackets. Wasp venom contains a chemical "alarm pheromone," released into the air, signaling guard wasps to come and sting whomever and whatever gets in their way. You may have noticed that beekeepers always wear white suits; yellow jackets are repelled by light colors and attracted by dark colors so black and bay horses are more likely to be stung than white or light-colored horses. They also gravitate to dark holes like eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears.
Horses that are stung will react violently to the sudden pain, usually by bucking. You will hear your riding companions yelling, "GO! GO! GO! BEES! GO!" and you must be ready to move quickly. Wasps and bees can fly about six to seven miles per hour so humans and horses can outrun them but they will follow relentlessly for quite a distance. Yellow jackets will sting more readily then most and have the capability to sting repeatedly.
They become particularly aggressive in the fall when their natural food supply, nectar and fruit pulp, is becoming scarce. Needing carbohydrates and certain proteins, they are attracted to human food such as sodas, juice, beer, sweets, hotdogs etc. When you're eating lunch on the trail, examine cans and other containers before drinking from them to check for stinging insects that may have flown inside.
Anyone with a known allergy or hypersensitivity should never ride alone since help may be needed to start prompt emergency treatment measures if stung. It is wise to carry or have an identification bracelet or necklace, such as "Medic Alert," to alert others when sudden shock-like (anaphylactic) symptoms or unconsciousness (fainting) occurs after one or more stings.
In any case, riders will want to put something like an "Afterbite" stick or cortisone cream to relieve a painful sting and some Benedryl tablets in their saddle bags. I also spray a product called "Bee Safe" on myself and my horse before a ride during late August and in September and October. It is natural, not chemical; the main ingredient is peppermint, which disrupts the insect's respiratory system. Instinctively, the insect senses danger and flies away. Since bees, wasps and yellow jackets are social insects, they have a unique communication system and they communicate the danger to others.
For information about Big South Fork real estate or horse properties in Jamestown, Tennessee, go to www.trailridersrealestate.com
There's also a lot of information about the area on Tennessee Recreational Properties' website.