One day last summer (2021), I was on my back porch. I lifted a tarp I keep over my cabinets so I could close the door, something I’ve done without thought dozens of times. A wasp flew out from under the tarp at warp speed and stung my hand so hard and painfully that it felt like a blow. For a moment I didn’t know what happened, but my hand hurt like hell, and I realized that a stinging insect had gotten me and that there were more of them.
I yelled and scrambled back into my house, frantically scanning to make sure no wasps had come in the door with me. I slammed the storm door and the wooden door inside it. But the wooden door doesn’t latch all the way in the summer and wouldn’t stay shut. I needed to get away from that wasp and its colleagues so badly that I leaned on the wooden door with all my body weight for an embarrassingly long time, on the off chance that a wasp might be between the doors. I recovered slowly from my scare. My hand throbbed and started to swell.
A New Experience
I’ve always gotten along very well with stinging insects. I am a gardener and around bees and wasps a lot in the yard. I have gotten very close to paper wasps on my porch before, in many situations. I’ve always felt friendly toward these creatures and have never panicked when they buzzed around me. When I sit on my porch steps, I sometimes hear the wasps chewing on the cardboard I have stapled there. You can tell how close I was when I made this cute video of a different species of paper wasp to capture the chomping noises.
I’ve had a few stings in my life. I got stung by honeybees a couple of times as a kid when I accidentally stepped on them. I’ve been stung three times by yellow jackets as an adult, but these were not bad stings. In each case, they felt like “warning” stings, as if they weren’t full strength. These stings didn’t swell up much and went away within a day.
This was different.
The Surprise Factor
The sting was painful. But the shock was worse. I’ve written before about my experience of drinking a big swig of sour milk as a kid. The experience was a disgusting shock, in part because I didn’t understand what was happening. I was young; I didn’t even know milk could go sour. That intense experience changed my behavior for life.
The wasp sting was similarly shocking. There was a sense of disorientation that came with the pain. A moment of pure physical response, while I was confused about what had happened, knowing only that I was somehow under attack.
Now I know that the wasps had defended their nest, which was under the tarp. But at the time my body only knew to run.
I received an aversive stimulus from the environment. For people who are more experienced with them, a wasp sting might just be a normal day, a minor irritation. But for me, the sting and the shock were of high magnitude. My behavior changed.
I was curious to see how extensive and long-lasting the effects were, so I kept track.
I’ve written about the fallout from the use of aversives, and this includes that fear and avoidance can attach to the location and other elements of the environment besides what directly hurt us. This is one of the many risks of the use of aversives in animal training. Did this generalization happen to me? You bet, even with my human cognition and the fact that I was analyzing the experience.
This one event caused fear conditioning, punished several of my behaviors, and negatively reinforced even more.
Changes in Emotions and Respondent Behaviors
Here are the respondent behavior and emotional changes I’m aware of.
- The sound and sight of a wasp was followed by pain, so I underwent respondent fear conditioning.
- After that, I experienced what is called a fear-potentiated startle reflex. I startled when I heard buzzing or when I saw an insect flying toward me. This response was heightened when I was in the area where the sting happened. Previously, these stimuli would have evoked only caution.
- I retained a bad feeling about the tarp.
Behaviors That Were Punished
Punishment, even from a strong aversive stimulus, doesn’t always last forever. These behaviors stopped for several days, then gradually came back into my repertoire after I got rid of the wasps (see the reinforcement section below). Even then, most of the behaviors were still less frequent for quite a while.
- I stopped moving the tarp. At some point I would have to, but it would probably be a long time before I reached up thoughtlessly to move it. That behavior was punished.
- I stopped going out my back door and stopped hanging out on my back porch.
- I didn’t use any of the tools from my cabinet, even though the door was open. Reaching into the cabinet was punished. The wasps might be in there, too!
- I didn’t close the cabinet door because I would’ve had to move the tarp.
Behaviors That Were Negatively Reinforced
The first three of these behaviors were escape behaviors; the rest were avoidance behaviors. All negatively reinforced.
- I ran away from the wasps.
- I closed the door between them and me.
- I leaned on the door and scanned for wasps inside the house.
- For the first few days, if I had to go into the back yard, I went out the front door, then went in the side gate.
- I did the same for the dogs.
- I was hypervigilant when outside, and scanned frequently for wasps.
- When I did venture out my back door, I closed it quietly and skirted the other side of the porch. These wasps were defensive, not out to get me, but I didn’t know where their nest was or whether there might be more than one.
- I hired an exterminator. I hated to do that. I had a lifetime of experience getting along just fine with these small creatures, and I try to treat these little lives with respect. I hated to kill a bunch of them because they made their house in the wrong place. But I needed to use my tools and to close the door of the cabinet and to keep my dogs safe.
- Well after the exterminator had come, I gingerly pulled the tarp off the cabinets. Wasps couldn’t live in there out of my sight anymore!
- I laid the tarp out on the grass to “cook” in the heat for a couple of days, then rinsed it with water before drying it and putting it away.
- I Googled a bit because I got a large localized response to the sting. My entire hand swelled over the course of about four days and stayed that way for another three. I found out that my high magnitude localized response might mean I would be more likely to have a systemic response (anaphylaxis) if I were stung in the future. This made me redouble both my reasonable and over-the-top precautions.
It’s now a year later. Most of my behaviors that were punished have returned to baseline, and I have some last remnants of the avoidance behaviors.
Until recently, all that remained was some slight watchfulness; I was no longer blasé about wasps, but the fear and avoidance had ramped down. I’m more careful than I used to be when they fly around me, but that’s about it. That lifetime of good and neutral experiences with stinging insects buried most of the fear.
Then it happened. One day last week, I went to the back door, opened it, and a yellow paper wasp flew in and lit on the inside of the door as I closed it. But I didn’t startle or panic. My former, pre-sting self was back in charge, even though I was in the situation I had tried so hard to prevent before: a wasp was in the house with me.
But this was a situation I had dealt with many times in the past. I kept an eye on the wasp and slowly opened the door again. The wasp stayed put for a while, then started walking around a little on the door. Then it took off and flew in the right direction (the porch). It circled very fast, then flew away. I didn’t startle or flinch.
I was thinking about my behavior changes and how things had about gone back to baseline when the metal chain on the key on the lock caught the light as it swung. I startled! The proximity of the wasp had woken up that response again. The quick flash in my peripheral vision was similar enough to the flash of a fast-moving insect that the reflex got triggered.
I’m a little out of my depth to be making any generalizations, but I think it’s fascinating that my operant responses are mostly back to where they were before, but the automatic, respondent behaviors were waiting right there to jump into action again. Thank you, sympathetic nervous system, for remembering and working to keep me safe. Thank you also for reminding me of the persistence of the fear response.
Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson
Photo credits: Wasp illustration is a CanStock photo. Linked wasp photograph is a public domain image by Alex Wild via Wikimedia Commons. Photos of the cabinet, hands, and keychain are copyright Eileen Anderson.