Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest Is Asking For Trouble

An old bit of folklore holds that stirring up a hornet's nest is not a desirable thing to do. The hornets, it seems, are somewhat protective of their nest and will try to discourage anyone or anything that gets too close. These insects are well equipped to protect their home. They are armed with stingers.

The hornets and their insect cousins the bees and wasps are really quite efficient when it comes to stinging. Indeed, these insects are more accurate than the smart bombs or heat-seeking missiles used in modern warfare.

Woe be unto the driver and team of horses or mules who happened to plow up a bumble bee's nest in a clover field. Both the beasts of burden and the driver become the recipients of multiple stings from the enraged bees. The stinging frequently prompted the animals to bolt, resulting in spectacular runaways.

The introduction of modern tractors didn't lessen the rage of bees on having their nest disrupted. However, it was the tractor driver who bore the brunt of the bee's wrath since stinging a metal object does little to sooth the enraged bee. No amount of waving the hands about the head seemed to prevent stings, although almost anyone who has inadvertently disturbed a bumble bee's nest has tried the tactic.

The accuracy of these four-winged, poison-injecting machines was noted by Robert Frost in his poem "The White-Tailed Hornet." Frost says, in reference to a hornet from a disturbed nest, "The exit he comes out at like a bullet is like the pupil of a pointed gun. And having power to change his aim in flight, he comes out more unerring than a bullet."

Folklore uses the predictable stinging behavior of disturbed hornets as a model of the trouble some folks can get into. There is more to this bit of folklore than just avoiding the homes of hornets. The sage advice of the saying is to not go looking for trouble in the first place.

The biological fact is that most stinging insects, including the bees and wasps, sting in defense of themselves or their nest. When left alone, these insects are not anxious to resort to stinging behavior.

Another saying holds that boys will be boys, and many boys have at some time or another deliberately provoked a group of stinging insects. Sometimes throwing rocks at a hornet's nest will do the job. So will poking a stick down the burrow where a bumble bee nest is located. Such action normally results in a confrontation with the inhabitants of the nest, much to the delight of the thrill-seeking youngsters. At least the sport is fun for awhile — until the wasps break down the defenses of the human combatants and , in most people's estimation, provide the troublemakers a just reward for their efforts.

After all, anyone with any common sense wouldn't stir up a hornet's nest just for the fun of it.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann