Brett Westwood

On a balmy day in September 2003, Harry Green and I set off along the Shrawley Brook near Holt Heath to search for land caddis. It was one of those classic mist -and -mellow- fruitfulness mornings which soon warmed into a hot day. Red Admirals were everywhere, floating above the trees and sharing ivy-blossom with hoverflies and wasps. We soon noticed other visitors to the ivy in the form of hornets Vespa crabro, searching not for nectar, but hunting flies among the blossoms. At the time we both remarked on how tame and confiding the hornets were and how in spite of their dramatic appearance, we felt completely safe watching them at close quarters. We speculated on what a hornet sting would feel like in the unlikely event of being stung by one. “No worse than a wasp” said Harry knowledgably, and we moved on

The hornets were all around that morning and eventually we stumbled on an active nest in a damaged oak tree. Harry peered into the cleft in the trunk and pointed out what looked like organ pipes hanging down from deep inside. These were the elegant paper flutes of the hornets nest and they were still under construction. Standing back from Harry I noticed that a polite queue of worker hornets was building up behind him, waiting for him to move away from the entrance to the nest. “You wouldn’t get wasps behaving like that” I remarked, and we allowed the insects to resume their building.

After a successful caddis hunt and lunch, we headed back a couple of hours later through a deep dark dingle surrounded by farmland. Harry spotted a grove of irresistible limes, so we plunged into the gloom to examine them more closely. As I stumbled through the shade of the lime-leaves, I felt something collide with the top of my head and the wriggling of insect limbs in my hair. I put my hand up to touch it and at that moment felt a blinding pain right on my crown. I remember yelping loudly (and probably swearing too) because the pain was astonishingly sharp, enough to make me see double for a short time. This was clearly not a wasp sting, it hurt far too much, and though I didn’t see the insect, it felt big! Harry had heard the deep steady buzz of a hornet a second or two before it hit me and I can only assume I had stepped accidentally into its flight path. The hornet disappeared as fast as it had arrived, but the stabbing pains stayed with me for a good six hours, travelling down the side of my head into neck and ears. Three days later the crown of my head was still sore and throbbing.

It obviously wasn’t an act of aggression on the hornet’s behalf , but if anyone tells you that their sting is no worse than a wasp’s, take it from me….it is!

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