a community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Great Enemy of Truth is the Myth

© Marlene A. Condon

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”


[Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]

A serious problem for our natural world is the many misperceptions that people harbor about it and which they often refuse to discredit, even when given factual information disproving their unfounded beliefs.

For example, it’s not uncommon in spring to see in print or to hear people say that allergy sufferers are reacting to the pollen of the many noticeable blooms on flowers and trees in this season. Indeed, I read a newspaper column in May in which the writer suggested that “this year all those beautiful flowers and trees are bringing a very unwelcome side effect.”

But in reality, plants that make conspicuous flowers require animals to pollinate them because their pollen is too heavy to travel on the wind. Therefore any plants that are beautiful because they have showy flowers are not a source of misery for people who are allergic to pollen they’ve breathed in.

It’s understandable that people suffering an allergic reaction at a time when lots of plants are blooming would naturally think that these plants are the source of their problem. Thus the myth is certainly persuasive, which is why it persists despite the fact that it’s not based upon reality.

But once you understand why plants would have showy flowers in the first place (so animals will notice them, visit them, and end up carrying pollen away), you can believe that the pollen of such plants is physically moved from one flower to another by animals—not air currents—to aid in the reproduction of the species.

The problem with myths that are misperceptions of reality is that they can cause people to do things that make their own lives less enjoyable while creating life-threatening situations for other organisms.

For example, many people believe that goldenrods, with their conspicuous golden flowers, are a source of allergens because they bloom at the same time as ragweed, which has inconspicuous flowers.

Thus folks may remove goldenrods from their yards, which not only deprives them of a source of beauty during the fall, but which also deprives many kinds of insects of an excellent source of nectar and pollen at a time of year when most plants are going to seed.

One insect, the Monarch Butterfly, is especially dependent upon the late-blooming goldenrod. This plant’s nectar (a sugary fluid) provides carbohydrates, a rich source of energy vital to the survival of each Monarch as it migrates to Mexico in the fall.

To help our Monarchs on their journey, all of us should be planting goldenrods, or at least be allowing the ones that come in on their own (“volunteers”) to stay put.

Another common myth regarding the natural world is that people are normally stung by bees. From radio and TV to the Internet and print media, people talk about “bee” stings, when in reality, most people are stung by social wasps, such as the Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) and the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata).

As with all organisms, a bee wants to live as long as possible—something that isn’t going to happen if it stings someone.

When a bee stings a person, its stinger is torn from its body and left in the wound, causing the bee (unlike a wasp) to die. Therefore a bee will only use its stinger if it absolutely must, such as when it senses imminent danger to itself or its nest.

In fact, a bee wants you to know right where it so as to avoid a confrontation that might force it into using its stinger. That’s the reason that bees—unlike wasps—buzz!

My husband is allergic to stings and I remember how nervous he was our first spring and summer together. I grow lots and lots of flowers, which means lots and lots of bees, wasps, and other kinds of insects everywhere you look in my yard.

He told me how, as a little boy, he would “zoom” past the azaleas that were humming with bees because he was so afraid of getting stung. I explained to him that he hadn’t needed to be so fearful of these insects because bees and wasps mind their own business as they go about their activities at flowers.

I pointed out that the only reason anyone would ever get stung would be if they made the insect feel threatened by crowding it (leaving little room for it to fly away). Now, after having seen me take many, many close-up photos of bees and wasps at flowers without ever getting stung, my husband no longer fears these insects.

Additionally, you never want to approach a nest closely because these insects—with good reason—will feel the need to protect their young.

The explanation for why the majority of “bee” stings are actually wasp stings is because our buildings tend to provide great places (under the eaves, for example) for wasps to build their nests, which are often close enough to the ground to make these insects nervous when people (or any kind of animal) gets too close.

The main strategy my husband and I use to avoid getting stung by wasps is to make sure they aren’t able to reproduce right around our home. We actively look for their paper nests in early spring when there is only one queen and a very small nest to remove.

We locate nests and make a note of where they are. On the next chilly morning (50 degrees or less), we get outside early with a long stick to knock the nests down. This is fairly safe because wasps, being cold-blooded, are sluggish in the chilly temperatures so they fall to the ground.

If we discover a nest later in the season when morning temperatures are higher than 50 degrees, we’ll venture out in dark clothing and in total darkness to take down the nest by using a flashlight to blind the wasps to our movements. After knocking a nest down, we immediately leave the area and come back inside the house.

If a nest is just out of reach, we sometimes knock it down with a strong stream of water from a hose. We never use pesticides, which are totally unnecessary.

By sometime in May, the wasps have normally been discouraged enough to find a place away from the house to nest. Of course, they will still be in the vicinity to feed, and since they can land anywhere, we remain alert for their presence to make sure we don’t scare them into stinging us.

So don’t fear wasps and bees, but do respect them. By learning why they behave as they do, you can be smart about your own behavior and peacefully coexist with them.

Indeed, my once-fearful husband now finds our nature-friendly yard a marvelous place to be. I love watching him watching the bees and wasps as they visit the flowers as he stands right next to them.

A little knowledge makes all the difference in whether you view the world as terribly frightening or incredibly fascinating.

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