Late Summer Stings

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Nothing interrupts a peaceful late summer hike more than the swelling pain of a yellow jacket sting. We have entered the time of year when everyone at Wintergreen and all of central Virginia need to pay attention while hiking or picnicking. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why human/yellow jacket interaction is reaching its crescendo for the year.

Through the majority of summer, worker yellow jackets are focused on building up nests and raising the next generation of queens. These colonies have a set social structure that keeps order when tasks are clearly defined. Early summer, the workers focus on gathering protein in the form of other insects to feed the growing larvae. Their focus is in growing the colony and producing queens. During this phase of the summer, yellow jackets rarely show aggression due to their focus on the tasks at hand.

 

 

By late summer the workers’ (1000-4000 per colony) role and dietary needs begin to change. The first change is in their diet. They focus much more on sugars and fats to increase the fat reserves for the queens. This sends them in search of more human forms of food. Cracking a sugary soda at a cookout and the yellow jackets are bound to show up. The next major change is in their colony roles. The role changes as they have maxed out the colony and the queens are beginning to leave the nest in search of overwintering locations. When she departs, many of the worker yellow jackets leave with her resulting in a horde of homeless, taskless stinging insects.

 

 

The sting of the yellow jacket is unique in its pain delivery. It starts as a pinch sensation and swells to a burning, itching feeling. On the Schmidt pain scale, the yellow jacket ranks at a 2.0 out of 4. It is above the honeybee and fire ant but below the paper wasp and bullet ant. You may experience swelling and redness around the sting site for hours afterwards. Yellow jacket treatments can vary. If you are allergic, call 911 and prepare to use your Epi-Pen. For the majority who are not allergic to their stings, ice application is the most straight forward approach. Keep ice applied for up to 20 minutes. The next option is to take an anti-histamine such as Benedryl, which can reduce sting symptoms. A nice easy remedy is to mix a spoonful of baking soda in water and apply it with a swab to fight the acidic nature of the venom. Vinegar applications can reduce the itching if that continues to be a problem.

Wintergreen residents need to be on guard for our marauding, homeless yellow jackets, both in the woods and at your next cookout. If you are unfortunate enough to find a nest on the trails email me at forestmanage@tnfw.org. Stay safe!

A Champion in Our Midst

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


A quick survey of the recent Olympics shows the intense desire to be number one at something. Rarely do we get to be in the presence of someone or something that is #1 in anything. A quick jaunt down to Allen Creek Trail will grant you just such an opportunity. Today’s Nine Minute Naturalist will introduce you to the number #1 most poisonous plant in North America, the water hemlock.

To be regarded as the most poisonous plant in an entire hemisphere is quite an achievement. This member of the carrot family produces cicutoxin which can cause delirium, nausea, convulsions, seizures and vomiting, often leading to death. All parts of this plant are poisonous but the roots contain the highest concentrations. Ingestion can lead to death in 15 minutes to 8 hours. The poison is so toxic that Native Americans are said to have used water hemlock to poison the tips of spears and arrows. This plant is not one to be handled.

 

 

The key to avoiding the deadliest plant in North America is through proper identification. Water hemlock grows from 2-7 feet in height and has distinct umbrella-like (umbels) white flowers that grow up to 6 inches wide. They will be in flower from July to September at Wintergreen. They have alternate twice or three times compound leaves and a distinctive stem that is tinged with purple. This native plant likes its “feet” wet and can be found in creeks, ditches, ponds, and swamps throughout Virginia.

 

 

Unfortunately, there are many look-alike plants throughout Virginia. The carrot family has a bunch of late summer flowering plants that can pose problems in identification. Parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace and water hemlock are all members of the carrot family that bloom at similar times. Queen Anne’s lace can be separated from water hemlock via location. Queen Anne’s lace grows in drier locals and prefers full sun while water hemlock prefers wetland soils and the shade. Parsnip has only singular compound leaves as opposed to twice or three times compound like water hemlock. Both look-alikes also lack the purple tinged stem of the water hemlock. It is also similar to poison hemlock made famous by the death of Socrates. The non-native poison hemlock flowers earlier in the summer and prefers drier soil types than water hemlock.

Now that you know more about the #1 deadliest plant in North America, it is time to get a close hand look for yourself. Allen Creek Nature Preserve is an excellent opportunity to get a glimpse of this species. It can be seen on both sides of the first bridge you cross on the right side as well as next to the final bridge you cross on the loop across the powerlines. Be sure to look but don’t touch!

The Misery of Mange

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


It is fascinating that the greatest threats to health and welfare come in the smallest packages. The other day amongst a group of kids the question arose of the deadliest animal on earth. My know-it-all son declared that the mosquito was the greatest killer and he was correct. While the mosquito is quite a pain, the current scourge of the wildlife population at Wintergreen is caused by the tiny mite. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go into depth on the mange currently afflicting our wildlife.

Wintergreen is a wildlife paradise. From Stoney Creek to the top of Devils Knob, a variety of optimal habitats allow for population such as deer, bear, fox, coyote, bobcat and rabbits to thrive. Increased populations also bring increased problems. Too many deer mean more car accidents. Too many foxes mean chicken owners had better beware. An overpopulation of bear brings about house and car break-ins. The problem of mange is a whole different “beast” that can affect a whole host of mammals including humans.

Mange is a highly contagious skin disease caused by mites burrowing into the outer layer of skin in a wild or domestic animal. These microscopic troublemakers form tunnels in the animal’s skin and lay eggs. After three days the eggs hatch and larvae move in the tunnels or to the surface of the infected skin. The larvae turn into nymph which turn into adults and the process goes into repeat mode. Mites are transferred to new hosts when an affected animal contacts another animal. Under perfect conditions, mites can fall from the skin and survive in the environment for a bit, infecting animals who contact this contaminated area.

Identifying infected animals is not a complicated process. The mange causes intense itchiness, hair thinning and loss, thickened skin, and scabbing. The behavior of animals tends to be altered, exhibiting a lack of concern of their surroundings thus increasing the likelihood human interaction. Severely affected bears are visibly emaciated and lethargic. To get a confirmed diagnosis, identifying mites via microscope is required.

 

 

The most visible and disturbing mange problem at Wintergreen at the moment is within the bear population. Multiple bears have been seen to be exhibiting mange symptoms. Mange in bears has seen a dramatic increase from the 1990s to the present. The sightings have sped up rapidly over the past few years with an over 300% increase over the past three years. Although the cause of the sudden rise is unknown, the bear population rise must play a part in the spread. Without great means to survey the black bear population, indicators of population numbers can clearly be seen in the rise of black bears harvested each year. Despite the continued decline in bear hunters, the record for harvests was set in 2019/20 and second all time is 2020/21. As bear populations rise so do interactions among bears. On a trail camera on Crawfords Knob, four distinct bears visited within a five-day period, one bear showing mange symptoms.

It is easy to see how mange spreads through a normally isolated species. An obvious spreading opportunity is the breeding season. Bears mate in June and July. One dominant male can breed with a host of female bears acting as a spreading agent. Another concentration point is the resort itself. Bears living far from civilization are faced with somewhat evenly spread food sources. Bears living near our developed community have concentrated food sources such as dumpsters, trash cans, etc. This concentration may be another reason we are seeing mange spread through bears at Wintergreen.

 

Image: Virginia DWR

 

The problem begs for a solution. Mange can be treated by administering medication on an individual basis based on body weight and other factors. Severely affected animals may die despite treatment due to a deteriorated body condition beyond recovery. Both the Wildlife Center of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have successfully treated bears and released them in good health. Sadly, the treatment doesn’t cause immunity. Bears tracked down later by DWR via radio collars were exhibiting mange a year later. Having to individually medicate bears and the legality of leaving food out for bears, removes the ability to treat bears in the wild. There is research being done on a one-time treatment that can be applied in the field. This will alleviate the stress and difficulty of capture, transport and treatment at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Mange is not only a wildlife problem but a domestic animal/human problem. Direct contact with an infected animal can pass the mites onto your animal or yourself. Human infections result in a skin rash that usually resolves without treatment. It may require treatment in children and immune compromised individuals. A pet with mange is best managed through treatment, although a healthy animal can survive mange. Dogs tend to show symptoms of intense itching and hair loss. If these symptoms arise, contact your veterinarian for the best management of this infection.

This problem is not going away soon and is particularly sad to watch unfold in our bear population. The infection running rampant has the attention of the major players dealing with wildlife in Virginia such as DWR and The Wildlife Center of Virginia. Feel free to pass on any sightings of mange infected animals to forestmanage@tnfw.org.