Some of the woods’ biggest dangers come in the smallest packages.
I’ll never forget my first trip to Texas. There were many memorable moments, but one that stands out occurred on the first afternoon. The outfitter had secured a supply of 8x8x4 plywood moving crates, which he’d converted into ground blinds by making one end panel into a hinged door with a cut-out shooting window. Inside was empty, save for a small bench consisting of little more than a few 2x6s. I settled in one such box, and it wasn’t long before deer began to filter out of the surrounding mesquite. That’s when the first sign of trouble appeared.
It started as a buzzing sound under the bench. Then, out popped the biggest, meanest looking paper wasp I’d ever seen. Unlike the dull brown ones back home, this one bore the sinister yellow and black pattern we humans seem to innately recognize as a danger sign. I’m not particularly bothered by wasps. But when you find yourself trapped with one in a box roughly twice the size of a coffin, it can be cause for concern.
While the blind offered great concealment, it wasn’t particularly stable, and any sudden movement resulted in a loud “screak.” With deer just outside, that wasn’t something I wanted to risk, so I managed to control my panic enough to shoo the wasp out the suddenly minuscule shooting slot before it inflicted any serious damage.
All was quiet on the southwestern front for 20 minutes or so until I heard the same buzzing under my seat, followed by the appearance of another flying danger sign. I’d had enough and decided to send the little pest into the great beyond. I swiped at it with my hat, jostling the bench, and out came the reinforcements: another half dozen heavily armed and now irate dive bombers.
There was nothing to do but bail out, which came as no small surprise to the small band of deer gathered outside. It was a valuable lesson, and now I won’t settle into a blind or shooting house until I’ve done a thorough inspection.
Hunting, like any outdoor activity, is not without its dangers. And some of the greatest are also some of the smallest. In addition to hypothermia, getting lost or falling out of a treestand, you also have to worry about a whole litany of tiny little creepy-crawly things, the hazards of which range from a mere nuisance to mortal peril. What follows is a very brief rundown of some of the more well-known offenders.
Wasps, Hornets & Bees
While they’re still fresh in your mind, let’s start with the stinging, flying insects: wasps, hornets and bees.
There are numerous varieties of wasps and hornets. About the only ones sportsmen need be concerned with are the vespid wasps, whose ovipositors are adapted into a venomous stinger. The primary purpose of this adaptation is to paralyze prey to be stored alive as food for their growing larvae. You probably don’t have to worry about that. However, it also makes a dandy defensive weapon. Pain can be quite intense, but physical damage is usually minimal.
The sting of the honeybee, on the other hand, is purely a defensive mechanism, used to protect the hive. Unlike wasps, which can sting multiple times, bees get one shot. Their stinger is barbed and lodges in the victim’s skin upon contact. As the bee pulls away, its stinger is left behind, and a small attached sac continues to pump venom into the victim. That is why you should remove the stinger as quickly as possible with a knife blade, credit card or other flat object, being careful not to squeeze the sac.
Bee toxin is a histamine, which means it causes an allergic reaction. Most victims experience initial pain, followed by swelling, then itching as the sting heals. In some cases, victims have a severe allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock.
Though certainly something to be aware of, Africanized or so-called killer bees are not the peril that Hollywood and the media would have us believe. They’re far more dangerous to other bees than to humans. The danger comes from them being considerably more aggressive than their European cousins, often attacking in large swarms and following their victims much farther from the hive. They are found most often in the southwest, although their range is expanding. As their range expands, however, their aggressive traits appear to be diluted through repeated integration with less aggressive European honey bees.
While far less common and largely docile, bumblebees can sting. I witnessed that first-hand on top of a mountain in Alaska. The result is typically pain followed by swelling, redness and itching, which usually last only a couple of hours. In rare cases, and only after repeated stings, there may be an allergic reaction.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best remedy for wasp and bee stings is avoidance. Leave them alone and they won’t bother you. Once they decide otherwise, however, there’s not much you can do short of wearing Kevlar to prevent being stung.
If that happens, you have several options. Apply a cold compress or ice until you can get proper medical attention. Or, you can apply vinegar or diluted ammonia with a cotton ball. Another remedy is to apply a solution of one part meat tenderizer to four parts water. This will break down the protein in bee venom.
You can also take an antihistamine like Benadryl to counter a mild allergic reaction. In the case of a severe reaction, seek medical attention. Fortunately, wasps and bees don’t seek us out, which can also largely be said of our next group.
Spiders & Scorpions
I don’t mind spiders too much as long as they don’t bother me, and, like wasps and bees, they usually don’t. Still, there’s a dozen or so that are venomous, and at least three you should know.
While it doesn’t get the fanfare of the other two, one of the most insidious is the brown recluse or fiddleback spider. At less than an inch long, this rather nondescript little devil packs quite a wallop. Its bite, at first, might feel like a pinprick or might even go unnoticed. And most bites heal without scarring. However, bites can sometimes cause intense pain. Some victims experience systemic reactions such as itching, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting or even shock. In severe cases, the bite results in extensive tissue necrosis (death) and a sunken ulcerating sore that can take weeks or even months to heal.
The smaller black widow can inflict a bite that’s quite painful and, in rare cases, potentially fatal, especially to the young and elderly. Black widows produce a neurotoxic protein that is considered one of the most potent venoms secreted by any animal. While some victims are only slightly affected, others have severe reactions. Pain may be followed by severe muscle cramps, abdominal pain, weakness and tremor. In extreme cases, nausea, vomiting, fainting, dizziness, chest pain and respiratory difficulty occur. Severity of the reaction differs with age and physical condition of the victim.
Although it’s the scariest looking, the tarantula is probably the least dangerous of our trio. Because of their size, tarantulas are hard to miss. They also often signal their intent prior to attacking by rearing up into a threat posture, extending their fangs, and even making a loud hissing noise.
If it fails to deter an attacker, a tarantula can flick stinging hairs toward it, or simply retreat. Push them too far, and they will bite. Fortunately, the typical result is similar to a wasp sting.
I’m much less fond of scorpions, probably a combination of not having grown up around them and watching too much TV. While they seem far more sinister, they’re about as common as spiders and as dangerous as wasps. There are several varieties, and their stings are considered rare and usually result in pain, minimal swelling and tenderness.
One exception is the bark scorpion, which occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and the California side of the Colorado River. It has a much more toxic, painful sting that can result in more serious symptoms, especially in children. These include abnormal head, eye and neck movements; increased saliva production; sweating and restlessness.
Again, the best solution is avoidance. Both the recluse and widow are known to inhabit woodpiles, fallen trees and the dark, neglected corners of old buildings — can you say ground blinds and shooting houses? Avoid the former and keep the latter clean and tidy. Tarantulas are uncommon, limited to the southwest and go out of their way to warn their victims before inflicting pain. Scorpions like dark, warm places. It’s pretty much standard practice in hunting camps in scorpion country to check your boots every morning before putting them on. Turn them over and pound on them. Don’t stick your hand in.
If bitten, try to collect the perpetrator (even a mangled specimen) for positive identification. Remain calm and seek help. Apply an ice pack directly to the bite area to relieve swelling and pain. Consult a physician, and if severe symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.
Ticks & Chiggers
Far more outdoorsmen are afflicted by the spider’s distant eight-legged cousins: ticks and chiggers.
Pound for pound, there’s probably no creature on earth that causes as much misery as the chigger. Shortly after hatching, chigger larvae — so small you cannot see them without a magnifying glass — climb up onto vegetation, where they lie in wait for a passing host. Once aboard the victim, they insert their mouth parts in a skin pore or hair follicle and inject a salivary secretion containing powerful, digestive enzymes. And when they attack, they often attack en masse, leaving the victim looking and feeling like they’ve contracted a severe case of poison ivy.
It’s little consolation to someone who has been victimized, but the only effects of chigger “bites” are small, reddish welts accompanied by intense itching.
In general, ticks aren’t all that harmful. They attach to a host and engorge themselves with the host’s blood before dropping off. The after-effects are usually about the same as a mosquito bite. However, ticks can transmit a whole host of diseases including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, human erlichiosis and Lyme disease.
Recognizing whether you’ve been infected can be very difficult, and diagnosis is best left to a physician. Things to look for if you are bitten include a rash — especially the so-called bull’s-eye rash — signs of infection such as redness, warmth, swelling and pain, or symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, chills, stiff neck muscles or joint aches. Regardless, when in doubt, see a doctor.
According to the experts, most of the aforementioned diseases are not transmitted if you can remove the tick within 24 hours of it being attached. So you shouldn’t have to worry too much if you check yourself every day after leaving the field. When in doubt, consult your physician.
As far as chiggers, about the only after-effects are intense itching and the potential for secondary infections due to scratching. There are all sorts of remedies for temporary relief ranging from the somewhat reliable (ointments of benzocaine, hydrocortisone, calamine lotion and After Bite) to the somewhat outlandish (Vaseline, cold cream, baby oil, fingernail polish and Listerene).
Of course, you can eliminate all of the above problems if you don’t get bit. Unlike bees, wasps and to a certain extent, spiders, you can’t really avoid ticks and chiggers. However, you can prevent or significantly reduce their bites. One way is by wearing a product like Rynoskin. It is a lightweight synthetic base layer woven so tightly that ticks and chiggers cannot bite through it. Another method is to apply permethrin — a chemical sold under several different trade names — to your clothing. Spray it on, let your clothes dry and the permethrin will act as an effective insecticide for several weeks. Standard repellents like DEET also work but have a very short period of effectiveness and require frequent re-application.
Mosquitoes & Black Flies
In terms of sheer volume of negative interactions, this last group could probably be considered the worst. Fortunately, they’re more of an annoyance than anything else.
Mosquitoes suck. More precisely, the female sucks blood from her victim.
For the most part, their bite amounts to little more than an itchy welt. However, they can, on rare occasion, transmit diseases such as West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis to humans, both of which can be fatal.
Blackflies (also called buffalo gnats or white socks) are a bit less delicate. They use tiny mouth parts to grasp and spread your skin, then slice through it with their jaws. The typical end result is an itchy welt; and because they attack in swarms, often many such welts.
The black fly can transmit a parasitic nematode that causes river blindness, a disease found in southern Mexico, Central America and South America.
Although the most abundant, this group is also among the easiest to deal with. In most cases, only exposed skin is vulnerable to their bites. Wearing a head net and gloves is one solution. Insect repellent is another. However, most repellents have an odor that deer might detect.
A more effective option is a ThermaCELL. It’s a small portable device consisting of a tiny heating element powered by a replaceable butane cartridge and a pad saturated with a synthetic copy of a naturally occurring insecticide. When activated, the device will maintain a 200-square-foot mosquito-free zone.
The intent of providing all the above is to educate and inform. If you’re having second thoughts about ever going deer hunting again, remember that all those creepy, crawly critters were out there before you read this. They’ve been out there for eons, and the odds of suffering a serous injury or illness as a result of encountering them are minuscule. In fact, you’re far more likely to get hurt driving to your favorite hunting spot. On the other hand, take any bug bite seriously and consult a physician if you have any doubts. Read Recent Articles:
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This article was published in the August 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.