Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area last Thursday, I came across many interesting things, as is nearly always the case at this vast place. The verges of this road were loaded with migrant sparrows, mostly White-crowned and White-throated sparrows. When working such bird-rich sites, I usually have the big lens clipped in place on the camera, so as not to miss a good bird shot if one presents itself.
Bald-faced Hornets rank very high on the scale of fierce insects. After all, they hunt, kill, and eat other beasts like Eastern Yellowjackets! From my experience, they aren't overtly aggressive towards people, though - unless you invade their turf. I am about to invade their turf.
All of a sudden - WHAM! A bright white electric pain shot through my right hand. One of the hornets had hit me! It was essentially a drive by stinging. The occasional hornet was coming and going from the nest, and I think one just happened to head off in my direction. Confronted with a strange interloper, it whacked me on its way out. Their sting is quite amazing, actually. The animal never even landed on me - it apparently just hit me in a fraction of a second as it whizzed by. The effect is sudden and extraordinary, though. It's as if you've been stuck with a hypodermic needle heated to 1,000 degrees. Every one of your body's senses immediately fixates on the sting, and the synapses instantly fire off brilliantly intense warning messages to the brain. Within a nanosecond every fiber of your being is telling you to FLEE!
Which I did. Knowing that problems could arise, I had the car as close as possible, door open and windows shut. If need be I could dive in there and seal myself off from the hornets.
CAVEAT: I'd never recommend trying for close-ups of a Bald-faced Hornet nest. You're almost certain to get stung, and that can be a real problem for some people. I viewed this opportunity as a calculated risk and felt that a few factors were in my favor. One, I didn't plan on getting TOO close. Two, the situation was thus that I had a hornet shelter - the car - very close at hand. And perhaps most importantly, based on experience, I have no allergy issues to stinging Hymenoptera. Some people react very badly to stings and go into anaphylactic shock. Stings can be life-threatening in such cases and sensitive people would never, ever want to go anywhere near a Bald-faced Hornet nest.
Upon review of my images in the camera's viewing screen, I felt I could do better and should make the most of this opportunity. So, on went the 100 mm macro. This lens, unfortunately, would necessitate a closer approach - probably within 12 feet. It turns out that I was able to, quite stealthily and very quietly, creep to about ten feet away. That enabled close shots of the nest's entrance. Note the hornets swarming about, with many more lurking just inside the doorway. They remained seemingly unconcerned by me although I'm sure they were well aware of my presence.
After making a series of images, BAM! Another one got me on the right hand, in nearly the same place as the other. I took the hint and exited stage right with good speed. No sense pushing my luck, and one thing you do not want to do is bring down the wrath of the entire colony and have the whole gang hot on your heels.
In addition to having a nice opportunity to make images of these interesting insects, it was also informative to experience their stings. One often hears inaccurate or much exaggerated claims about animal bites and stings, and probably the only way to know the truth for certain is to experience it. Not that I'd ever recommend that anyone go all Justin Schmidt and try to get stung, but at least now I can speak with firsthand familiarity should the need to describe the sting of a Bald-faced Hornet ever arise.