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from St. Petersburg Times


Yellow jackets swarm, kill man

The 83-year-old Hillsborough County man was doing yard work when he disturbed a nest of about 10,000 wasps.


April 16, 2002

The 83-year-old Hillsborough County man was doing yard work when he disturbed a nest of about 10,000 wasps.

KEYSTONE -- Working around his home off Lake Glass gave 83-year-old Albert Wellner a sense of independence. Just to be safe, his wife of 52 years would check on him frequently.

Late Monday morning, Wellner was clearing woods near his dirt driveway when he disturbed a large nest of yellow jackets nestled amid pine needles.

Wellner was swarmed.

About 30 minutes later his wife, Eleanor, found his body near the riding mower, about 150 yards from their house, said their son, Tom Wellner.

Wellner was stung "hundreds" of times, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies say. An autopsy will be conducted.

Wellner probably was dead long before emergency personnel arrived, Tom Wellner said.

"His pleasure was getting out on his tractors and tooling around the house," Tom Wellner said. "He would work an hour or two at a time."

"He was a good man; I don't really know how else to put it," Wellner said.

After the attack, authorities immediately called Jonathan Simkins, an entymologist who owns Insect I.Q., a Tampa pest control company. He arrived at the house about 20 minutes after Wellner was found. What he saw was chilling.

"They were still swarming in a tornado-like fashion around the lawnmower," said Simkins, who estimated that there might have been 10,000 wasps in the underground nest.

Yellow jackets make their nests out of wood fibers and saliva, said Simkins. Underground nests are often camouflaged by leaves, dirt and other natural matter. Pine needles covered the ground at the Wellner residence.

Simkins thinks the noise and vibration of the lawnmower provoked the attack.

"The nest was agitated," he said. "There were probably 2,000 on the outside of the nest, all over the palmetto fronds, just waiting to attack. It was unbelievable."

It took Simkins and his employees, using insecticides and other materials, about 15 minutes to remove the nest and kill the yellow jackets. They wore veils, leather gloves, protective flannel suits and respirators to prevent being stung.

Simkins and his company also worked on another yellow jacket attack that proved fatal.

In September 1998, 2-year-old Harrison Johnson died after being stung hundreds of times by a swarm of the insects in the back yard of a friend's Tampa home. His parents said their son did not show overt signs of needing medical attention until seven hours after the attack.

An autopsy determined Harrison's brain had swollen from an undetermined amount of venom caused by 432 stings. The couple ultimately were cleared of wrongdoing.

Most people who are stung by a yellow jacket have mild reactions -- redness, itching and pain. University of Florida researchers say that it takes about 1,500 stings to kill an adult man. Wasp venom is toxic. Some sting victims die from a allergic reaction to the venom.

In 2000, about 100 people died in the United States from bee stings.

Getting rid of them is not easy. Eradicating a yellow jacket nest is not as simple as squirting the insects with Raid, Simkins said.

"You don't want to try to handle it yourself," he said.

People who think they have a nest on their property should call a professional, advises the University of Florida Entymology Department.

The Wellners bought the property in northwest Hillsborough County in the late 1940s, Tom Wellner said. Because they moved around a lot as kids, they wanted to give their three children a more stable upbringing, he said. His parents thought the homestead, called Leeward, was perfect.

Albert Wellner was a systems analyst who installed one of the St. Petersburg Times' first computer systems, his son said.

Wellner finished only one year of college, the son said.

"Basically he was self-taught," Tom Wellner said. "He was a very good problem solver and easy to work with."

After leaving the Times in the late 1960s, he took a job at Lykes doing similar work, Tom Wellner said. He retired from Lykes in 1984, a year after having his pituitary gland removed during a brain tumor operation.

Besides being a dedicated family man, the soft-spoken Wellner was active in the Keystone Presbyterian Church.

His mother will likely stay on the family's 10-acre property, Tom Wellner said.

"They sure loved being in the country," he said. "I don't believe I can stand to part with it."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

© Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved

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