Cottage Q&A: Should I swat a wasp?

A wasp resting on someone's hand

I freak out when wasps buzz around me. I swat them away. Is that the wrong thing to do? Also, how can I learn to calm down around them?—Nicoletta Ivy, via email

Swatting wasps isn’t a great reaction. Acting in fear—and then, acting aggressively—towards wasps makes it more likely that they’ll see you as a threat, and therefore, act aggressively in response. That is not what you want.

Better? Take a deep breath. “You need to talk yourself through that fear response,” says Sam Klarreich, a Toronto psychologist. He suggests repeating a few calming phrases to yourself when the wasps show up: I’m bigger than the wasps. They’re just as concerned about me as I am about them. They’re not here to hurt me. “It sounds corny, but it works.”

It’s also true. The wasps really aren’t there to hurt you, says Andrew Bennett, a research scientist in the hymenoptera unit of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Unlike mosquitoes, and practically every other flying nuisance insect, wasps have no interest in you personally. If a wasp is hovering around your head, it’s gathering information. It’s trying to figure out whether or not you’re a flower—probably your shampoo or skin lotion smells floral. Give the wasp a minute or two, and it’ll move along. “The only time that wasps will sting is when you’re threatening them, or you’re threatening the nest,” says Bennett. In fact, in a 2005 paper in Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers reported that foraging bees and wasps must be “firmly touched” before they’ll actually sting. (Fair enough. Sometimes being firmly touched is just not welcome.)

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So all evidence says that ignoring the wasps is the best move. Klarreich suggests putting yourself in “a brief state of meditation.” Close your eyes, and breathe deeply for a few moments. Then open your eyes. If you’re still feeling anxious, repeat the exercise.

Anxiety can lead to irrational thoughts and catastrophizing (imagining an outcome far worse than what’s likely); you need to shut that stuff down. A third anxiety-busting strategy is to think realistically about what would happen if you were stung. The sting will hurt, “but that hurt won’t last forever,” says Klarreich. “It will go away.” (This is assuming you aren’t allergic. If you are, take the appropriate measures to keep yourself safe.)

With time, you can desensitize yourself to the fear of wasps. But it will take time. And effort. And wasp encounters. “This doesn’t happen overnight,” says Klarreich. Whatever you do, don’t avoid late summer’s wasp-filled barbecues, picnics, and dock parties. “That just reinforces the fear.”

Know that wasp activity only really ramps up around the end of summer, when the colonies have increased in size and foragers are trying to feed the offspring, says Bennett. It’s over in a few weeks. “By the time the nights start to get cooler, all those wasps will die.”

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