The Sting of Bad Habits

Wasp stinger, with droplet of venom
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Part 1 of the series:

When Faith Doesn’t Work

by Don Enevoldsen

I have an irrational fear of bees. I’ve never talked about it before, but I feel it’s time to confess this dark secret. Every time a bee buzzes anywhere near me, I feel a nearly uncontrollable compulsion to run.

Actually it’s not that bad anymore, but at one time in my life, that compulsion was uncontrollable. Even if I had time to think about it, I still reacted. I saw a bee across the yard, bumbling in my general direction. I thought to myself calmly and intellectually, “Logic tells me that it is obvious, given that bee’s erratic flight pattern, that he is not approaching with hostile intent. He is looking for a flower to pollinate.”

Mr. Bee circled closer. “And I don’t look anything like a flower. I don’t smell like a flower and I don’t sound like a flower. There is no way anyone, including that bee, could ever mistake me for a flower.”

The buzzing got louder. “Even if he lands on me—which is very unlikely—he will quickly realize his mistake and move on.”

He circled my head and buzzed back and forth a couple of times, no doubt checking to see if I really was a flower. (I don’t think bees have particularly good eyesight. But I could be wrong about that.) “Don’t panic. He will only react to fear.”

Then my body completely detached itself from my will power and ducked violently away from the bee, while my legs defied my logic, ran twenty paces, stopped abruptly, and calmly pretended nothing had happened.

The whole time I suspect the bee was happily humming “Flight of the Bumblebee” and dancing to the rhythm. (Bees have a faster metabolism than humans so it probably wasn’t that fast a song for him.) I’m sure he was thinking something like, “What a great day for getting out and enjoying this fine summer weather. Look at that weird human running erratically across the yard. Better stay clear of him so I don’t get hurt.”

Logic was absolutely no help in overcoming this fear. It wasn’t until I got to the root cause of the problem that I finally gained some control.

I believe it all started with a swarm of bees—yellowjackets, to be precise, which technically are wasps, not bees, and which are significantly described as “predatory.” They attacked me during my childhood. I had numerous stings by the time I got away. Yes, I did provoke them, but I assure you it was an accident.

The incident also involved a chicken, and may have contributed to my passion for moving to the city where the chances of running into either yellowjacket nests or live chickens are greatly reduced. The chicken had somehow escaped from our chickencoop. (I lived in the country where our eggs came directly from chickens and our milk came directly from cows, without intervening grocery stores.)

A friend and I conceived the truly brilliant idea of catching the chicken with a wire clothes hanger. We straightened it out except for a hook on one end. Our goal was to catch the chicken’s leg with the hook and slow it down long enough to plop a cardboard box over it. My friend took the hanger, I picked up the box, and we went hunting.

I’ve never considered chickens to be very intelligent. Their brains are about the size of an olive, after all. But I have a nagging suspicion that this chicken outwitted us with a clever getaway strategy. (Never underestimate your opponent.) He ran directly over the top of an underground yellowjacket nest. His clucking and squawking were enough to get the attention of the yellowjackets on guard duty.

My friend, flailing the clothes hanger, tromped heavily over the top of the nest. That was enough to make the yellowjackets mad and to mobilize them for the defense of the colony.

Which meant that they were out and ready to greet me as I followed with the cardboard box. The next few minutes were as unfair as they were ugly. Both my friend and the chicken escaped unscathed. I had at least a dozen stings.

The lesson should have been: If you insist on running over the top of a yellowjacket nest, make sure you’re ahead of the chicken.

Instead, the lesson ingrained in my belief system was: Anything that has a stinger and buzzes is dangerous and painful. Run away immediately. If it buzzes and you don’t know whether it has a stinger or not, run away immediately. In fact, if it flies and it’s not a bird, don’t chance it. Run away immediately.

This lesson was validated by a completely random event not long after. On a warm spring day, I sat in a classroom, working with the rest of the students on a test or essay or something unremarkable, except to say that no one was talking, including the teacher. Suddenly the silence was shattered by a classmate—whose name was also Donald—when he shouted, “Ouch!” A yellowjacket had landed on his arm and stung him—right there in class while everyone was minding his own business and not bothering insects of any kind whatsoever. It wasn’t even biology class. It was English.

The lesson? Even if the flying, buzzing thing, which may or may not have a stinger, is going after someone else, don’t chance it. It might be seeking out people named Donald. Run away immediately.

As an adult, I have gradually overcome this irrational belief system that kicks in every time I hear buzzing. I still react, but today, instead of running, I first identify the source of the buzzing. If it doesn’t have a stinger, I swat it away. If it does, I now identify whether it is a predatory insect or a more benign and friendly bee. Then I assess whether or not I’m doing something that might provoke the insect, such as standing on top of its nest.  If the answer is yes, I stop and I move away at a quick but controlled pace. Running away immediately is no longer an uncontrolled response. It is a step in self defense.

This process took time and experience—often very uncomfortable experience. I had to endure the presence of buzzing insects without running away. As I got control of my reactions, in large part by learning to distinguish between types of bees and wasps, I found that regular honeybees were much nicer, and by staying in their vicinity while they flew around, I learned experientially that they would not bother me if I didn’t bother them.

As I got more comfortable with the friendlier bees, I learned to tolerate and coexist with the more aggressive insects, avoiding situations that would antagonize them.

Eventually my fear of yellowjackets decreased enough that I could swat them out of the air and step on them if they got a little too close.

(Note that I still have no plans to move back to the country, but that has more to do with cows than with chickens or yellowjackets. Another story for another time.)

The main point of this story is that our behavior is controlled by our innermost belief system, not by our conscious knowledge. Those behaviors and habits that are so difficult to overcome are the result of beliefs we have embraced from early in life, often from birth. We act the way we do because deep down we believe it is the only way we can act. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we have to change, until we deal with the core belief, we will have very little success.

A second point might be that chasing chickens is unrewarding and not necessary, even if you are successful.

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

The Sting of Bad Habits
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