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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Insect versus man

Massive yellow jacket nest keeps woman afraid and indoors

BY BRIAN McDEARMON
FORT MITCHELL, Ala. - Brian Province and Don Simmons have made money killing critters for a long time.

When they got a call last month about an unusually large yellow jacket nest at 53 McLendon Road in Fort Mitchell, Ala., they expected something roughly the size of a license plate -- the biggest they had ever seen.

What they found was a gray, papier-mâché-like mass the size of a car hood attached to the bottom of Annie Garvin's mobile home. That nest is only a few feet from a fig tree in her backyard.

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Garvin's mobile home -- one of few on her street -- sits on a small grassy lot in a row of new homes a couple of miles off Highway 165. Before she noticed the nest about three months ago, the 74-year-old woman would walk around the outside of her home at least twice a day for exercise. Sometimes she would go back there for a snack.

"I'd be out there eatin' figs. I'd go out there and eat them off the tree," Garvin said.

She hasn't eaten a single fig this summer. In fact, she doesn't even know if there are any left on the tree.

"I'm not going out there foolin' with it. Not while they're around there," she said.

Shock and awe

When the two exterminators first arrived on the scene, "... both our mouths dropped," Province said.

Together, Province and Simmons have more than 20 years' experience working for different outfits. Now, they're joint owners of PSI Services, a Columbus contracting company that also provides pest and wildlife control services in Alabama.

The nest they found could house as many as 200,000 yellow jackets, the duo estimated, although they stress they aren't entomologists. They just kill the bugs.

"This is the largest one either one of us has ever seen," Province said, standing just a few feet behind the mobile home, where the nest hung beneath the sagging floor.

And that was just the tip.

Most of the nest, they say, is below ground. Judging by the chunk attached to the home, they estimate it could be 20-30 feet long.

All that is visible of that section is a basketball-sized hole in the ground under the home.

Province held out his right hand, forming a circle the size of a peach pit with his index finger and thumb. "Usually an entrance hole for a yellow jacket nest is about this big," he said

The battle begins

The floor above the nest had been damaged years ago, so Garvin's adult children, Steve Garvin and Joyce Joycecq , cut a slit in the carpet and tried to poke the nest off the home by pushing a branch through the particle board. It didn't work, but one yellow jacket got inside and stung Annie Garvin on the side of her nose.

They pushed a funnel into the floor. Down went bug killer, then a deadly mix of bleach and ammonia.

The yellow jackets remained.

In a last-ditch effort, Steve Garvin duct-taped several pieces of wood together and attached a metal fork to the end. The siblings climbed into Joyce's car and rolled down a window, covering the opening with a vinyl screen. Steve manned the improvised yellow-jacket-nest remover; Joyce took the wheel.

They drove the car forward to the mobile home's edge, scraped off a large chunk of nest and accelerated down the street. The yellow jackets buzzed the car for four blocks.

"They were swirling around the car. They were like little pellets attacking the car," Joyce said.

Joyce, who lives in Columbus, took Annie Garvin to stay at her house for three days until the yellow jackets calmed.

"Nothing we did seemed to be doing anything to them," Joyce said.

They gave up and called PSI.

Province sprayed the nest on July 14 and again on July 16.

Province said he expected to finish off the rest today with a final spray. After the colony is wiped out, he and Simmons plan to put the nest on display at Do it Yourself Pest Control Products -- a Columbus shop with which they do business.

"We want this nest bad," Province said.

Overgrown yellow jacket nests like the one at Annie Garvin's home have been appearing throughout southern Alabama and Georgia this year.Entomologists are pointing their fingers at the weather as the cause of the phenomenon.

Inside the nest

Here's how it's supposed to work: Only queen yellow jackets in a colony survive the winter. The queen sleeps until spring, then looks for a place to begin a new nest and lay the first eggs of the colony.

"What we think is going on here is they're not dying off," said Dan Suiter, associate professor of entomology at the University of Georgia's College of Agriculture campus in Griffin.

That means colonies from last year added to their nests through the winter and into this year. Many ended up with multiple -- sometimes dozens -- of queens.

Mild winters are nothing special around here, but entomologist Charles Ray, a research fellow at Auburn University, said all it takes to destroy a colony is a few days of near-freezing temperatures.

"We never had -- growing up in the South -- what you would call a cold snap," he said.

Although Ray hasn't found time yet to visit Garvin's nest, he said Province and Simmons' 200,000 estimate is extremely high and would make it larger than any nest he has ever examined.

Although experts believe they have a handle on what is causing the giant nests, Ray said the mystery is far from solved.

"There are still more questions than answers," Ray said.
SOURCE:
Ledger-Enquirer | 07/26/2006 | Insect versus man

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